Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Justifying Racial Reform

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Justifying Racial Reform

Article excerpt

Davison M. Douglas*

[African Americans] want what is due them, rather than pity and sympathy. They think that if you have to make people look bad or broken up before you can get the country to give them what they should have by right, then that's the same old racism and segregation at work.-African-American minister, 1965(1)

CONTEMPT AND PITY: SOCIAL POLICY AND THE IMAGE OF THE DAMAGED BLACK PSYCHE, 1880-1996. By Daryl Michael Scott.^ Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 269. $39.95.^^

African Americans have had an undeniably unique experience in this country, surviving three centuries of the ravages of slavery and postemancipation oppression. How has this history affected subsequent generations of African Americans? And in what ways should contemporary public policy be reshaped to account for this legacy?

Social scientists and policymakers have wrestled with these questions for more than a century. Their conclusions, not surprisingly, have varied dramatically over time. Daryl Michael Scott, in his fascinating new book, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996, has written a history of the ways in which intellectuals and policymakers have both characterized the personality of African Americans and used those characterizations to influence this country's racial policies. Although these characterizations, or "images," have varied, a common theme of the last fifty years (but with roots in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century2) has been the effort by racial liberals to construct African Americans as damaged and to use that "damage imagery" to build support for progressive racial policies. The arguments in favor of school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education3 and affirmative action in the mid-1960s, for example, were premised in part on the notion that African Americans had been damaged by racial discrimination and segregation.

Scott argues that although damage imagery may have played an important role in efforts to attack segregation and racial discrimination, the use of this imagery has had profound negative consequences for African Americans and should be eschewed. According to Scott, liberal use of damage imagery has "made black rights contingent upon white sympathy and superiority rather than black equality and citizenship."4 Moreover, the use of such imagery, designed to evoke sympathy, too often evokes contempt and is easily co-opted to justify anti-black attitudes and policies. As long as African Americans are conceived of as "damaged," or a "problem people,"5 they will inevitably remain mired in negative stereotypes and will seek to define themselves against a white norm.

Scott's intellectual history is not chiefly concerned with legal doctrine, but his analysis has significant implications for the contemporary legal and political debate over race-conscious social policies. The central issue in this country's racial policy during the last thirty years has been whether the race of individuals should matter in an array of public and private decisions: who is admitted to a university,6 who is employed,7 how voting districts are constructed,8 how government contracts are distributed,9 and how children are assigned to school.10 Proponents of color blindness argue that consideration of race in these decisions, even if done for benign reasons, is both unconstitutional and immoral.11 Critics of color blindness argue that attention to race is justified given this country's past treatment of racial minorities.12 Reasons proffered in support of race-conscious programs such as affirmative action vary, but one important rationale has been that such programs are necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of years of racial discrimination in this country.

Should this nation continue to follow remedial policies that involve race consciousness, such as affirmative action and school desegregation? …

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