Opinion: Un-learning racism in America

“Kirk obscures the deeper problem which is that the airlines have done a lousy job with minority hiring. According to a 2022 report on the demographics of the airline industry, only 2% of pilots are Black.”

“Kirk obscures the deeper problem which is that the airlines have done a lousy job with minority hiring. According to a 2022 report on the demographics of the airline industry, only 2% of pilots are Black.” Pixabay


Published: 02-06-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Part of the conservative counter-revolution against wokeism is un-learning lessons learned about racism in America from the civil rights movement and Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In that era, the systemic roots of racism and the Black historical experience in America were laid bare. A better understanding of American history, that included an understanding of racism, emerged.

Now we have conservatives consistently attacking things like diversity, equity and inclusion (or DEI) programs, the 1619 Project and critical race theory. This is an effort to turn back the clock and restore white supremacy.

When the door plug blew out of an Alaskan Airlines plane, billionaire Elon Musk, without any proof, blamed the incident on Boeing’s diversity programs. Boeing made the plane in question. Musk said, “Do you want to fly in an airplane when they prioritized DEI hiring over your safety? That is really happening!”

Of course, that is not happening. No connection has been established between the door plug blowing off the Boeing 737 Max 9 and any diversity program. A far more persuasive case can be made that corporate greed, the lack of regulation and the pressure to prioritize profits over quality were behind the incident.

When a wheel came off a Boeing 757 just before takeoff on a Delta flight on Jan. 20, Donald Trump Jr. said, “I’m sure this has nothing to do with mandated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practices in the airline industry!!!”

Trump Jr. has also cited no evidence. It is enough to plant the idea that diversity initiatives are compromising safety. Trump Jr. was followed by far-right leader Charlie Kirk saying, “I’m sorry. If I see a Black pilot, I’m going to be like, “Boy, I hope he’s qualified.” The racism could not be clearer: for Kirk, being Black equates with incompetence.

Kirk obscures the deeper problem which is that the airlines have done a lousy job with minority hiring. According to a 2022 report on the demographics of the airline industry, only 2% of pilots are Black. Over the last ten years, the number of Black pilots has fluctuated between 1%-2%. The problem isn’t incompetent Black pilots, it is almost no Black pilots.

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Blaming DEI is not some accident. As the New York Times just exposed, it is part of a plan devised by conservative activists and academics to abolish DEI which they see as part of “the leftist social justice revolution.” They are about stigmatizing any idea perceived as left-wing.

The Times showed how the anti-DEI movement was centered at a think tank, the Claremont Institute in California, which has close MAGA ties. Trump coup lawyer John Eastman hails from Claremont.

An association of Republican operatives, right-wing philanthropists and donors and political groups have coordinated anti-DEI advocacy in multiple states including Alabama, Maine, Florida, Tennessee and Texas. They have exchanged model legislation and have gotten more than 20 states to pursue the banning of DEI. Texas has approved such legislation, removing DEI from all public institutions of higher learning.

Their argument is that racial diversity and DEI programs corrupt public education. These folks do not wear Klan robes but their arguments encapsulate America’s societal backsliding on racism. Feeling like America is moving backward on race is not just subjective. Claremont Institute and others of its ilk are pushing backward. In its decision on affirmative action, the U.S. Supreme Court is moving in the same backward direction.

Possibly older readers who lived through the 1960s will remember the Kerner Commission report. I mention it because it was such a significant signpost of the 1960s. Following riots that broke out in cities all over America, President Lyndon Johnson created a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The report they produced became known as the Kerner Commission report.

The report examined the causes of racial unrest in urban America. It found white racism as the culprit leading to pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing. The report famously concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”

Instead of heeding the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, white backlash led to the election of supposedly law and order candidate Richard Nixon with his southern strategy. The nation never listened to the Kerner Commission. Residential segregation remains to this day an overwhelming fact of life across America as does school segregation. While the nation is more diverse, school segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1960s levels.

The re-segregation came after both the Nixon and Reagan administrations fought school desegregation plans. The federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, failed to defend desegregation plans.

All the news is not bad, however. Black Americans are much better educated than they were in 1968. 90% of younger African Americans have graduated high school compared to just over 50% in 1968. More than twice as many Black students have college degrees as in 1968.

The educational gains have translated into some improvements in wages and wealth but the median white family has roughly ten times as much wealth as the typical Black family. Black people are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as white people. Police brutality and high levels of incarceration continue as a plague condition for Black Americans.

As we’ve entered Black history month, intellectual honesty requires a recognition that, regardless of what conservatives say, white racism remains the same culprit it was in 1968. What’s different is even less willingness to face this truth. This was reflected in Nikki Haley’s statement to Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, “We’re not a racist country, Brian. We’ve never been a racist country.”

Before he was assassinated, Dr. King called the Kerner Commission report “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

We remain an amnesiac society. The story we want to tell about American history is not remotely close to the truth. Any progress we make on race is followed by lengthy periods of regression. That was true after Reconstruction, after the civil rights movement and the deep freeze continues now.

The political willingness to create a desegregated, multi-racial democracy is lacking. Racial gerrymandering and voter suppression schemes are the norm while the U.S. Supreme Court presides over it all, weakening the Voting Rights Act. Only by facing and engaging the racism will we ever be able to transcend it.