Why A Gay, Black Civil Rights Hero Opposed Affirmative Action | NYT Opinion


Now, that may sound like a
criticism of today’s race politics, but it was
actually written 50 years ago by civil rights leader Bayard
Rustin. Mr. Bayard Rustin! Bayard was Martin
Luther King’s collaborator and the chief
organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. “And the right to vote, what do you say?” Years before Rosa
Parks refused to give up her seat
on a bus, Bayard was arrested and
beaten by police for doing the same thing. One of 24 times he’d be
arrested throughout his life. In fact, he was
arrested right here at the World’s Fair
in New York City while demonstrating
peacefully for equality. If you’ve been paying
attention, you may have seen Bayard
popping up a bit this Black History
Month. “Bayard Rustin than was one of the
most important figures.” “I think that Bayard
Rustin is one of the people who’s
kind of almost criminally under recognized.” It’s heartening to
see Bayard entering the public consciousness. “A civil rights hero was almost erased
from history all because of homophobia.” But these portrayals
mostly focus on his identity. “He’s black, gay, socialist, pacifist, right? He’s actually America’s
worst nightmare.” He was openly gay. He was a socialist. He was an organizer. That’s great. But what’s missing are his
actual ideas. And why is that? Well, his intersectional
credentials fit the spirit of
modern activism. But his ideas? Not so
much. “The problem can never be stated in terms
of black and white.” The point of Black
History Month is to give a fuller
account of history unflinching and honest. If we cherry-pick
our heroes and then cherry-pick even smaller
parts of their legacy to match our
pre-existing beliefs, we are merely paying lip
service to that mission. “If a bigot says
to me ‘the sun is shinning,’ if the sun is shining, I say yes the sun
is shining because I want to tell the truth.” I’m a writer and
race commentator and Bayard Rustin holds a
special place in my heart. I’ve lost count
of the times I’ve had a seemingly original
thought about race relations only to realize that Bayard
beat me to the punch half a century ago. He
opposed affirmative action. He opposed reparations
for slavery, and he even
opposed the concept of African-American studies
as a unique discipline. Take the recent
blackface scandals. In 1951, Bayard argued
against banning blackface minstrel shows. He believed that the very
existence of minority groups depends on the freedom of
expression and civil liberty. Imagine that in 2019. Bayard saw trouble in the new direction of
black activism in the 1960s. He worried that the
movement was prioritizing divisive displays
of righteous anger over the inclusive
coalition-building that had led to successful
civil rights reforms. Today I see the
same divisiveness on display in the
tendency to take issues that affect
Americans of all colors, whether police violence,
criminal justice policy or education reform, and
frame them in exclusively racial terms. Bayard’s commitment to humanity over racial politics
ensured that he would be attacked from all sides. Bayard was a lifelong socialist, a friend of the labor movement. Most people
associate socialism with the liberal
left, and therefore progressive racial
politics. But Bayard had true socialist convictions. “No economic or social order has ever been developed
on the basis of color. It must be developed on
the basis of class,” which led him to oppose affirmative
action and reparations, instead advocating a federal
jobs guarantee, a higher minimum wage and
universal health care. Bayard criticized another trend
that’s on the rise today. He called it white
liberal syndrome. This syndrome causes
white liberals to expect less from
blacks out of a desire to signal their
awareness of racism. A recent study from the
Yale School of Management found that white liberals
use simpler words when communicating with a person they assume is black
rather than white. Conservatives, on the other
hand, showed no racial bias. Another symptom of
white liberal syndrome? The belief that white
people have no authority to talk about race issues. Bayard saw this attitude as another way in which
whites exploited blacks, not for money or for
power in this case, but for moral absolution.
Or as he put it: A full account
of Bayard Rustin means valorizing him not only
as a black man or a gay man, but also as an
intellectual. Reducing Bayard to an intersectional
prop is a symptom of a much larger problem: Our failure as a nation
to converge around a set of values
that don’t depend on our own particular
identities. Bayard said it best:

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