By Caroline Mattias
In summer 2011, a bus from Buffalo Airport drives downtown. The African American bus driver opens the door to let the passengers in one by one. There are not many, and they are all African American, just like him. The number of people on the bus will change on the way – the racial ratio will not. While going through the spacious suburbs of Buffalo, the bus fills up with people from African American background. Here, nobody is a racial minority because there is no minority, only one large group of people having their physical appearance in common. However, when arriving in downtown Buffalo, the scene changes dramatically. On the last stop the bus releases its passengers. It arrives at the Buffalo business district, or the “land of the white man in the suit.” The ethnic ratio has significantly changed. Now there is a minority.
This story might seem quite stereotypical; however, it is a true account of a city still tremendously influenced by a legacy of African American discrimination. However, this incident is not confined to one area. It is an issue of nationwide importance. According to a poll conducted by the Gallup institute, 51 % of white Americans in the United States believe that racism against African Americans is still widespread. Among African Americans, 78% agree with this statement. The majority is also convinced that an African American background plays a major role in prison rates.
Similarly, African Americans are still viewed as considerably underrepresented on university campuses, especially in positions of responsibility. What would be an efficient way to address this issue? Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, referring to the 14th Amendment and underlining an anti-segregation policy while at the same time supporting a high-speed integration policy in public schools, there have been many laws and regulations dealing with current racial discrimination. Among the most significant is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, education, and public facilities. This groundwork is followed by several other Civil Rights Acts and regulations aiming at eradicating race-based discrimination. However, many theorists claim that this approach is not sufficient. Among them is Richard Thompson Ford, an expert in topics surrounding anti-discrimination laws, multiculturalism and racial segregation. He received his degree at Stanford University and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Mr. Ford has written for the Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor and Slate, among others. His area of expertise covers conflicts in the social and legal field such as discrimination, racial segregation, multiculturalism and civil rights’ response to these controversial issues. He recently gave a guest lecture at the UCSD Revelle Forum under the title “Civil Rights Gone Wrong,” where he spelled out his approach to the ongoing issues of discrimination in the United States.
Professor Thompson Ford believes that racial injustice is a social problem that has to be tackled by everyone as a whole. He attacks the idea that every social injustice is a civil rights issue and highly criticizes that several types of disputes are addressed by the single civil rights approach. He believes that there is an over-reliance on courts to deal with social injustices in our society which eventually narrows our imagination of how to think about racial discrimination, an issue that is complex and controversial. He particularly underlines that many people suffer from bigotry and prematurely jump to unwarranted conclusions. Those from the right and left have fallen into this extreme stance and attempt to use civil rights for their own good. For example, anti-discrimination laws concerning sexuality have been misused to prohibit ladies’ nights in bars or to restrict mothers’ promotion day. Can such cases still be approached from a reasonable framework?
Another example Mr. Ford gives is that of an African American citizen being refused a taxi ride. This might on the outside look like an obvious example of a blunt form of racism. However, Professor Thompson Ford warns that one may not play the “race card” without looking at the specific circumstances of the case. For example, many taxi drivers refuse African American passengers, since African Americans often live in dangerous neighborhoods that taxi drivers are not keen to enter. Richard Thompson Ford calls such incidents “racism without racists.” Additionally, he mentions the case of Oprah Winfrey who was refused entry to a luxury outlet boutique in Paris, claiming to be discriminated against. Professor Thompson Ford draws attention to the fact that the store had already been closed at the time Winfrey wanted access in preparation for a private event. He believes that while some cases can be explained by bigotry, others cannot. Additionally, he emphasizes that the civil rights approach is not wrong in cases of overt offenses – it simply does not solve the entire problem.
Therefore, what we need are more comprehensive solutions. Professor Ford advocates practices that are less vulnerable to bias such as social policies or a change of “hearts and minds.” He claims that as a community, we should not rely too heavily on civil rights and the courts to solve complex issues of social importance. He advised the audience to carefully observe the institutions we deal with every day and to look for bias or discrimination that is not immediately obvious. It is a reasonable approach to promote change in society’s way of thinking however difficult it may be to change. That a change in peoples’ minds is effective is reasonable; however, the way it should be implemented is difficult to answer.
Thompson Ford therefore offers a fresh vantage point as to how to approach the issue of discrimination and multiculturalism in the present day. However, it seems to pose more questions than it actually answers. Further, he failed to address the issue of creating positive African American role models, a task that is implemented so far by civil rights law and is considered a complex but effective approach to motivate African American students to continue into higher education. Additionally, the fact that discrimination is still a current issue, “hardcore” Affirmative Action defenders will claim that a change in the “hearts and minds” and social policies are simply not sufficient to bring about profound change. Even the civil rights attempt was in many cases unsuccessful. However, it should also be noted that this article provides only an extract of Thompson Ford’s complex theory and cannot give a full picture of his approach, which is laid out in his new book “Rights Gone Wrong.” Professor Thompson Ford gave a lively account of someone who still believes that change is possible, who thinks about how it can be achieved and who makes us hope that the bus driving through the suburbs of Buffalo will no longer be an image of the legacy of African American discrimination from former times.
Photo Courtesy of John Steven Fernandez