The sad part," I say to my friend Kevin, "is that we're on the same side."
His back is turned, but I know he's rolling his eyes. He does that a lot around me. I amuse him. And annoy him. We argue just about always.
I call him the Angry Black Man. He calls me a femiNazi. Our fights are usually about who's more oppressed. We can't seem to help it somehow. Like children, we pick incessantly at the scabs of our separate, psychic wounds.
This time, an easy morning chat has turned shrill, predictably, when we start talking about affirmative action, which is all over the day's news. It is June 13, and the Supreme Court has just handed down a decision against minority set-asides for government contracts, signaling the end of federal intervention to help balance the power scale in this country.
In South Carolina, the legislature has just booted from the bench the state's only black female judge after a month or more of loud speculation in the media that racism was fueling the push to remove Abigail Rogers from Family Court.
You can almost hear it - the racial divide cracking wider, cutting deeper, splitting an already polarized people into neat, ugly camps. Us and Them. The labels are larger than they've been in some time, and sadly ill-defined.
Ironically, I underline for Kevin, it was Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only African American, who made the difference in the 5-4 ruling to end government support of affirmative action.
Kevin shrugs and says he doesn't believe in affirmative action anyway - calls it a failed policy.
"Oh, so everything is fine like it is?" It is a rhetorical question, but he answers it anyway.
"No, everything is not fine," he says.
"Then what do you suggest?" I challenge.
"Reparations," he says.
"Come on," I hoot, banging my head on the file cabinet in mock anguish. "Get real!"
"I'm serious," he says. "Until there are reparations for what they did to black folk..".
We're headed for Africa, I recognize the signs, and I'm in no mood to go there. I head off the slave ships with a new spin on a tired conversation.
"If you want to talk about reparations," I say, "then what about reparations for women? They've been serving up unpaid labor from Day One. Hell, they're still slaves. Why not reparations for them?"
"Oh, maaaaannnn," Kevin groans, like my notion is stupid and his isn't.
This is exactly what kills me about Kevin; he only sees oppression as it relates to color. When I've called him on it - pinned his narrow black activist butt to the mat - he just says, "I'm black. That's my thing. I'm sorry."
That's where we agree. He is sorry. Sorry to be as old as he is and as smart as he is and not yet get that there is only one issue. The black issue is the women's issue is the gay issue is, in fact, the environmental issue and the animal welfare issue. It is all the same thing. Exploitation is, after all, exploitation. It seems to me the failure of the progressive movement to have missed this point.
Instead of splintering into a hundred special interests and surrounding ourselves with people who look and think and believe just like we do - rather than fixating on narrow agendas that ignore the big picture - we could have simply asked each other: Been screwed by the system? Me too. Let's get together and do something about it.
But for that to happen would require more honesty and genuine good will than we've so far been able to manifest, not just as a movement but personally, individually. It would mean accepting responsibility for the mess we're in instead of pointing fingers and casting blame. And it would mean getting around to doing the work that is always the last to get done, the stuff closest to home.
My friend Kevin, for instance - committed, passionate and unafraid, the perfect activist - would need to ask himself some tough questions. One of them might be why he is bothered by this newspaper's open support of the gay community.
"POINT is just too gay," he complains. "I don't know. It makes me uncomfortable."
"That's our job," I remind him. "Do you hear yourself?"
"It's not that I have anything against gay people," he says, back-peddling. "I just think you're alienating people who might otherwise support POINT."
Maybe so. But to exclude gays would mean we have become that which we hate.
It is an old riddle. Feminists, among others, have long debated how best to define and align themselves. Do we win by becoming more like Them? Or do we look to each other and imagine a new way?
The latter requires more vision, faith and courage - which explains why it remains the path less chosen. Easier, of course, is to co-opt Their line, buy into Their system, and pretend it's our only choice.
The case of Judge Rogers is a sad example of the danger in taking the easy road. Even Kevin and I agree on this one. "She shouldn't have ever been a judge," he says. "What she did to her constituents, they should have been against her from the beginning."
Kevin charges Rogers with being a partner in the racist politics of former Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dick Harpootlian when in 1993 she ordered four mothers to pay "child support" to cover jail costs until trial, regardless of the ultimate determination of innocence or guilt. (The policy was overturned by the state Supreme Court.)
"Being black doesn't relieve one of accountability for racist policies imposed upon the black community," Kevin wrote in an editorial that ran in The State last month. "Ms. Rogers was not a good candidate from the start, and those legislators who readily admit that they promoted an unqualified candidate because she was Willie's daughter' ought to be held accountable."
Rogers' father was an influential man and the reason, some charge, that Rogers was able to make it to the bench.
However she got there, five of eight members of the judiciary committee found her unqualified, concluding that she lied under oath when testifying that she didn't abuse her office. They went on to call her behavior "repugnant."
Several years ago, I worked occasionally with Rogers. I was a public relations hack at the South Carolina Bar; she was president of the Young Lawyers Division. Her reputation in our office was that of being difficult, inept and downright mean, a reputation I would discover she earned.
I had wanted to be on Abigail's side, wanted to be glad to see a sister getting hers. But she turned out to be nothing more than a spoiled and pretty child, all sacharin and ice, a fairy princess ill-equipped to live in the real world.
It was no real surprise, then, to witness her downward spiral. It was probably inevitable. The surprise came in the intensity of the heat that members of the Black Caucus applied to the process, and how blindly they played the race card.
It is a risky practice, this reflexive reaction on the part of the Black Caucus to cry racism anytime a person of color is accused of doing wrong. Not only does credibility eventually suffer, it needlessly incites further anger and division.
So why do they do it? Kevin says, "They're into that black thing. But you have to be careful what you tell people to circle the wagons for. To raise race in this case you diminish the argument.
And what's the argument? "That we ought to have some proportional representation in government, that we need judicial reform. That's what you argue. If you are then rejected on the basis of race, that's when you argue racism."
One member of the Black Caucus, in a discussion about Rogers, declined public comment on the issue, saying he "wouldn't touch it with a 12-foot pole." His concern was that Rogers is a bad example to use when talking about race relations in South Carolina. He asked me not to "muddy the waters."
A fair position but, with all due respect, if the water isn't muddy that means we're standing still.
If we want change, really want justice, we have to start with ourselves. Until we recognize and deal with our own prejudices, the progressive movement is doomed. There has got to be some soul searching. Only then can there be an honest call to unity.
Blacks, women, gays and the rest of us on the outside understand power - most acutely that it is not ours. But it doesn't have to be so, because the numbers are on our side. If we wanted to, and if we could put aside our differences, we could mount a formidable force. If we were smart, we'd do it soon, before the work of the past several decades goes down the drain.
© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 7/9/95