By Rev. Richard Lawrence
Affirmative Action–a restorative justice program that tried to level the playing field for minorities, women and the disabled has been a miserable failure if the measure is increased pressure for justice.The best example of affirmative action I’ve seen was organized by Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when in 1962 Dr. King appointed the Rev. Jesse Jackson to organize a chapter of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. Jesse was a student at Chicago Theological Seminary–part of the Federated Theological Faculties–a cooperative academic venture that included the University of Chicago Divinity School (where I was a student). Disciples Divinity School and the Unitarian-Universalist Seminary.
We worked with Dr. Alvin Pitcher, Professor of Ethics and Society, to hammer out a solid, working understanding of love, power and justice and perfected the Freedom Movement’s disciplines of research (information gathering ), evaluation, education (both the community and the offending company) and negotiation of covenants documenting the restorative justice actions the company would take including goals and dates for hiring black employees at all levels of the company. These documents were signed by the company president at a raucous, celebratory Breadbasket Saturday “church” meeting. Our Negotiating Team scheduled regular meetings with the companies and monitored progress.
Rev. Jackson was the charismatic leader who organized a group of church pastors who became the Ministers Steering Committee. Our job was to apply SCLC’s disciplines and become familiar with the hiring practices of Chicago businesses and target a “Breadbasket” industry like grocers or dairies or bakeries for negotiations around increased hiring of minorities and women at all levels of the company’s operations. Our first choice was the grocery chain stores because their profit margin was real small, and that made them vulnerable to a customer boycott.
With grocery stores, our fight was easy. We organized informational picket lines, handed a flyer to shoppers walking or driving in to the store. That flyer described the facts: “Only 2% of the employees in this store are black. 90% of the customers are black. YOU NEED TO SHOP SOMEWHERE ELSE. There is another grocery store a block down the street. We’d usually provide the address and offer rides to shoppers who were walking.” We did not care at that point if the competitor was not much better. We planned to negotiate with one chain at a time. And the strategy worked!
Breadbasket was responsible for winning 4,500 new jobs, placing products from 25 black-owned food product companies into new outlets, securing contracts for black waste disposal, janitorial, auto dealers, builders and banks.
The theory behind affirmative action was that once Blacks were hired, they would be a voice for justice.
We were wrong. The new job has proven to be more valuable than justice.
For example and with few, if any, exceptions: black police officers, lawyers and prosecutors have been silent about police injustices. Black and Latino teachers have failed to take the lead on needed reforms in our public schools to assure a quality education for Blacks and Latinos. In general, the presence of minorities in positions of power and influence appears to have added little to our quest for a just society.
Maybe Affirmative Action is not worth defending after all.
“What we need is a new Bottom Line, one which judges the various aspects of society by the qualities they cultivate in us….we [should] expect our society to promote love… compassion, kindness and generosity, …ethical and ecological sensitivity….[and we should] expect our society to nurture our capacity to respond to others as embodiments of the sacred and to the universe with gratitude, wonder and awe.” Rabbi Michael Lerner
Rev. Richard Lawrence is a retired civil rights leader and an affordable housing advocate. His list of honors includes the San Diego Housing Federation’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” and a San Diego City Council declaration making November 10, 2013 “Richard Lawrence Day.”