Monday, December 04, 2006

Race Conscious Policies: Are They The Will of God?

(Photo of U.S. Supreme Court Justices courtesy of CBS News)

On the strange journey of race relations in America, race conscious remedies to racism are being hotly debated. The Supreme Court is once again weighing in on the "most vital and challenging issue" as detailed in this USA Today article:

The school districts in Louisville and Seattle are at the heart of a pair of legal disputes, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, that test whether public schools can use race as a factor in determining where students go to school. The cases, to be heard by the court Dec. 4, have drawn national attention because they could affect policies in districts across the country.

The key legal question in the Louisville and Seattle lawsuits — which were filed by parents of white students who weren't allowed to attend the schools of their choice — is whether school-assignment plans that use students' race as a factor violate the Constitution's guarantee of equality.(Read the whole piece here)

An activist group with the colorful name, By Any Means Necessary, has organized a march on Washington today that will begin at the Supreme Court and end at the Lincoln Memorial. Their description of the march includes this passionate statement:

The right wing is taking the Seattle and Louisville school desegregation cases to the US Supreme Court because they want to kill Brown v. Board of Education. They want to outlaw any measure that can achieve integration in American life. They want segregation forced on local school districts by the weight of federal law. They want black and Latina/o youth permanently relegated to separate, inferior schools. They are about to learn a lesson they should have learned a long time ago: you don't always get what you want.(Read the complete statement here)
National Public Radio had several stories this morning about the arguments surrounding the Seattle and Louisville cases. You can listen to some of it here.

Several years ago, I heard a Baha'i state that "Affirmative Action is Divine" when referencing the spiritual and administrative practice of encouraging minority representation in service and leadership positions in the Baha'i community. While support for such a practice is at least implicit in Biblical and Quranic teaching regarding the importance of social justice, the Baha'i writings make race consciousness explicit in the administration of the community:

To discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority, is a flagrant violation of the spirit that animates the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh...If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated, it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favor of the minority, be it racial or otherwise. Unlike the nations and peoples of the earth, be they of the East or of the West, democratic or authoritarian, communist or capitalist, whether belonging to the Old World or the New, who either ignore, trample upon, or extirpate, the racial, religious, or political minorities within the sphere of their jurisdiction, every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá'u'lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it. So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community. In the light of this principle, and bearing in mind the extreme desirability of having the minority elements participate and share responsibility in the conduct of Bahá'í activity, it should be the duty of every Bahá'í community so to arrange its affairs that in cases where individuals belonging to the divers minority elements within it are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements, Bahá'í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible. The adoption of such a course, and faithful adherence to it, would not only be a source of inspiration and encouragement to those elements that are numerically small and inadequately represented, but would demonstrate to the world at large the universality and representative character of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, and the freedom of His followers from the taint of those prejudices which have already wrought such havoc in the domestic affairs, as well as the foreign relationships, of the nations.
(Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 34)

The above statement makes four points which are relevant to the contemporary debate in America regarding race conscious policy approaches to remedying the effects of racism:

1. To discriminate against minorities is immoral, but to discriminate in favor of minorities is not.
Much of the attack on Affirmative Action or school desegregation efforts is based on the belief that all discrimination is wrong and any policy that involves race is discriminatory so should not be allowed. This somewhat simplistic view of what equality means appears to not fit the Baha'i view in which discrimination on behalf of minorities is not only acceptable, but constitutes a moral obligation.

2. To "nurture, encourage, and safeguard" minorities is a moral obligation.
Many Americans do not view themselves as morally obligated to care about minorities, much less "nurture, encourage, and safeguard" them. This form of moral anemia springs in part from a lack of consciousness that the well being of minorities is of vital importance to our democracy and is not simply an issue of charity or goodwill. I addressed the relationship between race and the security of America in this previous post.

3. The purpose of discrimination in favor of minorities is to "stimulate and encourage" them and "afford it the opportunity to further the interests of the community."
An enlightened majority would recognize that it is in their own interest to "stimulate and encourage" minorities because both minorities and majorities stand to benefit from it. Much progress has been made relative to achieving such an enlightened majority in America but we still have a long way to go.

4. It is expected that the minorities in question "are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements".
This point is often missed on both sides of the debate about race conscious policies. First, minorities that are being discriminated in favor of need to have the qualifications necessary for effective service to the community. Thus aiming for minority representation is not an exercise in tokenism or paternalism. Second, communities must ensure that minorities attain the qualifications necessary for service. Such an investment in minority development is a neccesary element of nurturing, encouraging and safeguarding them.