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Baccalaureate Speaker -- Charles James

29 May, 2005

Board of Managers and Colleagues, Family and friends of the Class of '05: Welcome and good morning.

It is with heartfelt congratulations that I salute all of you of the Class of '05. I feel honored by this association. It wasn't exactly serendipitous, but there was no scheme either that connected us in one of these two end ceremonies. You and I are almost there.

You, tomorrow. I as well. Each of us her own way together.

You have accomplished, in appropriate fashion, your symbolic and required 32. Credits, that is. I too have 32. Years at Swarthmore, that is. I admit, I did receive salary and benefits for mine. (You were rewarded differently.)

One part of me wishes I could change places with you. But another, more soberly insistent part of me says, I think I'd rather not.

I want to thank Al Bloom for asking me to take on this charge of speaking to you in my final days as a faculty member. It is both an honor and an opportunity to address you, your family and your friends and to reflect momentarily on some issues that matter to me and I would like to share with you as fellow travelers.

And I want to thank Barbara Mather for reading the text I chose from Ecclesiastes. That familiar text of time. Its interplay of moments that are so intermittently affirming of a lifetime and yet so complicating for a life in which social action has been so deeply intertwined.

Thirteen years ago Al Bloom presented his inaugural address to the college, laying out his agenda "A New Mandate for American Education." For me, one of the many highlights of that address was in Al's observation that "[You] must be more than well-trained, analytically astute, creative in [your] disciplines, and broadly educated. [You] must also possess," he adds, "what I would like to call ethical intelligence, and ethical intelligence responsive to our times."

There is plenty of room for interpretation of this phrase "ethical intelligence responsive to our times," but it seems to me, its very timelessness is precisely the point. 'Read the moment,' it suggests to me, and appreciate the depth of its meanings in the context of one's own time and its historical context as well. Penetrate its nuances and perhaps gain from them some inspirations or recognize some complex interplay gone unnoticed.

That earlier time — Al's 1992 inauguration — was in the twilight of the century just passed. As it seemed to me then, and seems to me today, the poetic and prescient words of William Edward Burghardt DuBois — written some 90 years earlier in his famous essay titled The Souls of Black Folk — these words echoed still throughout the academy. I return to these words yet again because I must, even now in the dawn of this new millennium. DuBois said: and I'm certain you've heard it before:

The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of [women and] men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.

This is a well-worn phrase that refuses to be stilled.

Since the time Al asked me to speak to the Class of '05, I found myself reflecting a good deal on my personal history and my career as a teacher, more than half of this life. It ranges from the worst days of the Great Depression, through the Second World War, and notably, for me, the Civil Rights era that continues to resonate with us today.

The death earlier this month of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the psychologist and educator whose 1950 report illustrated the destructive effect of school segregation and influenced the Supreme Court to nullify the old separate but equal law of the land. Pleased with that success, Dr. Clark subsequently embarked on a campaign to effect the goal of integration in public education, a more daunting charge. Years later, Clark ironically pronounced his life a series of "magnificent failures." By 1992, he would declare himself, "more pessimistic now than I was two decades ago."

This somber admission from a career advocate of civil rights, a fighter for integration and a level playing field in the American system of public education! He was worn down by a battle that dated back a half century before his own birth and nearly a generation following the death of Dr. King.

DuBois — himself a broadly educated and brilliant scholar, creative in his disciplines — had abandoned the U.S. and died a citizen of Ghana in 1963, five years following the Montgomery Bus Boycott initiated by Mrs. Rosa Parks and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On that very day of DuBois's death, hundreds of thousands of Americans were marching on Washington to protest for civil rights.

I cite these historical instances to remind us how far-ranging and complex are these matters of the color-line that DuBois astutely declared a century-old dilemma of national and international scope. Today, the form and the nature of these "lines" are no longer as clearly demarcated as they were during the era in this nation known as Jim Crow: that period now seems from this vantage point something like a century since those rules were suspended. For me, it's merely a generation ago. When my wife and I were married in Atlanta in 1960 (by Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr-Daddy King they called him), that city, Atlanta, was still staunchly segregated.

It was a challenge practically anywhere in the nation for a person of color. Simply to find a decent apartment that you were allowed to rent even when you could afford it. It was a challenge to find a job that you had trained for and were reasonably competent. It was a challenge to cast a ballot in most parts of the deep South without being threatened with injury, or worse.

My aim here is not simply to rehearse these familiarities but to remind you how gratifying it was to have a law that improved the prospects for favorable change.

The decade of the 60's alone represents an enormous chapter in the history of this country. It certainly wasn't all about civil rights, to be sure, but it has all the signs of a watershed period for a new role in the modern academy and the civil rights showdown of the 60's that has its roots deep in the African American struggle for freedom and justice as well as women's struggle for a level playing field.

Even from this distance, the sum of the 60's has all the semblance of chaos, but within the tumult, the tragedy, and the uproar, fascinating things were occurring close to the heart of each episode as they occurred North and South one after the other. White college and university students joined with black activist cohorts in their challenges of the status quo.

Within all the chaos and appearance of chaos there was taking shape an informal coalition of views and perhaps most significant of all what Ralph Ellison once called "the real test of integration that counts": the integration of the American cultural personality.

(And incidentally, it was Ellison who declared that with the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 another battle of the Civil War had been won!)

The 60's did bring about dramatic changes from the customary behavior of the past. Black and white college and university students conjoined to challenge the status quo in a steady flow of interracial marches, testing segregated public transportation and restaurants, universities, and corporate hiring policies and accompanied all the while with spirited singing of "Freedom" songs.

It spilled from the civil rights' "battlefields" onto the college and university campuses.

If we dare to believe that the well-worn terms "civil rights" challenge us to find, in our own best interest, the means to resolve the issues of racial relations in a democratic society, I believe we need to begin again and yet again right here in the academy, as Al said somewhere, Where else but here? And today we need to take into full account the new Americans whose origins are in such places as Mexico, El Salvador, in Asia and Africa and the islands of the sea because just like those 17th-century pilgrims we've heard so much about, these new pilgrims have been in search of a better way of life too.

My wife and I came with our two daughters to Swarthmore as pilgrims from the winters in upstate New York. Actually I arrived first. Alone, for the job interview. It was the month of February and snow was knee-deep in my hometown. The flight from Syracuse reached a snow-less Philadelphia after dark. A promising sign. I spent the night in the Bond Lodges and awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine. My window overlooking the quad revealed resplendent greenery. Colorful birds were encircling and singing. I was sold!!

On my arrival here at Swarthmore, I joined two black colleagues who had preceded me: my dear friend Kathryn Morgan and her colleague Jerome Wood, both teaching in the Department of History. Swarthmore's campus was still vibrating from the changes. The College was actively seeking to fulfill the agreements reached with the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (you all know as SASS). In my biased view, it was a sea change of significant magnitude. It is still sweeping across the academies, across the nation.

In the recent issue of the Swarthmore College Bulletin (to which we — you and I — have just subscribed) then-president of SASS, Clinton Etheridge '69, likened this episode to a disciplined and dignified, nonviolent direct action event in keeping with the acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the Jim Crow practices of the South. He states: "In our own small way, members of SASS were trying to do at Swarthmore what Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing at the national level.... SASS was trying to make Swarthmore as relevant and meaningful to black students as to white."

Of course Swarthmore was not unique, and not all such occurrences could be described as dignified. But they all were emblematic in the wider landscape of academe. And in one form of the curriculum or another, the changes sustain. Since Black Studies, "fresh" fields of study entered the curriculum, including Women's Studies, Latin American Studies, Francophone Studies, Asian Studies. They all required some degree of readiness on the part of the keepers of "tradition" to strike a bargain.

It occurs to me that all of this represents a pretty potent undergraduate clout.

It is significant that when the former president of SASS was recently on campus, he pointed out how distressed he and a colleague had been by a local newspaper account that characterized them as "radical separatists" when, after all, they were merely seeking curricular parity; when their motives for being at Swarthmore were otherwise no different from their fellow white students.

The 60's was an era of social change in action and every one of you has been affected by it. I believe that today the Academy looks more like America than ever. Ready or not, you are about to take your place in a world that is quite ambiguous about it.

My take on this event and my own experience as observer of other similar actions on different campuses, leaves me impressed with the apparent decorum of most of the participants here at Swarthmore. The tensions that surely evolved in these events could have spilled over at any point and undone the intended good will. But even with the sudden and unexpected death of the President, wiser and cooler heads prevailed on both sides. The subsequent consequence of which was a more representative cultural and gendered face of the curriculum at Swarthmore.

The Swarthmore College you are about to go forth from is quite different even from the one I knew on my arrival. I haven't had occasion to sleep in the Bond Lodges since that first night in the winter of 1973. And I don't think I'd want to risk discovering that my first view from that window was merely an illusion.

But I am convinced that Swarthmore was dead serious about diversifying the campus community and in thinking, as Al says, "about the direction Swarthmore might take and the role it might play in American higher education in the future."

No. No. I'll go further, unabashedly. I'm convinced that Swarthmore had preferred to act affirmatively and ethically by joining in the effort to alter the academic status quo. Whoops! There's that code word, affirmative. Negative in some eyes these days, in this context. For me it represents the power of the public to act. For me, its association is with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voters Rights Act of 1965.

I must say that every teaching position I ever held, beginning in the early 1960's, was the result of an affirmative act by an adventurous administration willing to challenge the existing conditions.

And wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation an affirmative act? It didn't please all, but it was the ethical thing to do.

Wasn't Women's Suffrage an affirmative act? It didn't make everyone happy, but it was the ethical thing to do.

And wasn't the Civil Rights Act an affirmative act? It didn't please everyone, but it was the right thing to do.

Yet as many of you well know, the expression affirmative action, has gotten a bad reputation in certain quarters. Juxtaposed against this concept is the term preference.

An outspoken old friend — June Jordan — called it an "impertinent interposition." She writes:

... And propagation and pivotal functions of that impertinence, that interposition of the word preference depended, entirely, on American media riled against affirmative action: against provisions for more equal opportunities for Americans who have been institutionally, and personally, denied equality throughout our ongoing American history.

Saucy lady she. And she would not have shrunk from that accolade.

I raise these matters with you in this forum because I truly worry about the prospects of clocks being turned back from the advances we have gained thus far in the academy through affirmative action. Even without being specified a designated target, an institution like this one can suffer the consequences of collateral damage through costly legal litigation.

We hear a great deal these days about those who have gained national prominence in their efforts to negate the affirmative by declaring themselves staunch opponents of notions of racial preference.

Some of you already know, for example, that the African-American millionaire Ward Connerly of Sacramento California, has been a leading crusader against affirmative action. He leads these crusades through his American Civil Rights Coalition, the organization that sponsored Proposition 209 and banned college and university admission policies throughout the state. His success has effected an alarming reduction in the numbers of African American and Latino enrollments in the universities, especially at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Swarthmore alum Christopher Edley, Class of '73 and dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley, recently stated that Connerly has been "both profoundly wrong and phenomenally effective." He went on to point out that Connerly's works have touched lives of millions, not just in California but nationwide.

The University of Michigan, for example, has twice been targeted, a second time just a few months after a U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold their admissions policy. I'm sure by now it comes as no surprise to you that I think there is much irony in these activities — irony with teeth. Perhaps we are all being "victimized" by some form of satire. But most of all, there does seem to be something disingenuous about these enterprises.

Let me share some views with you from one Tim Wise (his real name), who is Director of the recently-formed grouped named Association for the White Anti-racist Education (AWARE) in Nashville, Tennessee. These are ironic times!

Wise lectures across the country about the need to combat what he terms institutional racism, gender bias, and the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States.

Tim Wise's work has earned him such complimentary designations as "Leftist extremist" (that from David Duke).

He's been characterized as "deceptively Aryan-looking," (that by a KKK group).

And remarkably, he's been designated "the Uncle Tom of the white race" (that by Dinesh D'Souza).

Evidently Tom Wise has touched some nerves. Here's how.

First of all, know that the undergraduate admission policy at the University of Michigan is based on a point system. The targeted applicants are members of underrepresented minorities (which at the University of Michigan means blacks, Latinos and American Indians). The university awards 20 points on a 150-point evaluation scale.

The charge that this practice is blatantly discriminatory fails to note that greater numbers of points are awarded for other things that amount to "preferences" for whites to the exclusion of people of color. Here are some examples. There are many more:

* Michigan awards 20 points to any student from a low-income background, regardless of race

Of course both preferences are fair, based as they are on the recognition that economic geography (as with race) can have a profound effect on the quality of K-12 schooling that one receives, and that no one should be punished for things that are beyond their control. But note that such preferences — though disproportionately awarded to whites — remain uncriticized, while preferences for people of color become the target for reactionary anger. Once again, white preference remains hidden because it is more subtle, more ingrained, and isn't called white preference, even if that's the effect.

* Ten points are awarded to students who attended top-notch high schools, and another eight points are given to students who took an especially demanding AP and honors curriculum.

As with points for those from the Upper Peninsula, these preferences may be race-neutral in theory, but in practice they are anything but. Because of intense racial isolation (and Michigan's schools are the most segregated in America for blacks, according to research by the Harvard Civil Rights Project), students of color will rarely attend the "best" schools serving mostly whites.

* So even truly talented students of color will be unable to access those extra points simply because of where they live, their economic status and ultimately their race, which is intertwined with both.

Apparently Connerly's ironic adoption of the expression "civil rights" in his challenge to affirmative action ostensibly provides him the ethical cloak for his mission. It seems he has struck the spirit of backlash against Civil Rights and its gains since the 60's, in the academy and there is no telling where else. Fortunately, he's close to my age and ought to retire soon. But his great and ironic success has bred another generation of like minds in high places.

This country has always been a nation of claims and counter claims; we always hope, at least, that the consequences are checks and balances; and we likewise always hope that in the end the ethical nature of behavior will prevail. This is perhaps the ultimate affirmative act.

I leave you here with the following: There may be in this contest between affirmative action and its opponents an opportunity to engage the virtues of ethical intelligence. Color lines are skewed and coalitions have taken on new forms. But I think it is too soon to believe that the voice of W.E.B. DuBois has been stilled.

It's your time.

There's work to be done.

Go in peace.