The Wednesday Morning Club | March 22, 2000
THANK YOU VERY MUCH. It's very nice to be with you.
When I first got involved in this effort, my first public outing, if you will, was when I came down and appeared before the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and they gave me a Patrick Henry award—the option of give me liberty or give me death. It was one that over the course of the next five years after the award that I had to pause whenever I thought about that.
It is great to be with you and to kind of share some of the stories behind my life. It's sometimes difficult to share personal experiences, but I'm often asked "why do you do what you do?" as if it's freakish to take a position and to defend it. Because of that, I decided to write Creating Equal. Largely, I was venting because of the barbs that were thrown at me, and one day I started pecking at the keyboard and getting even and calling a few names that would never see the light of day, but that's how it all began. What I want to do today is to briefly let you know where we stand on this issue, share some of my experiences with the hopes that they might give some context, not only for why I'm involved in this, but why I think it's important that we have a different perspective on life, on the life of a brown-skinned man living in America, and what I think that it portends for other people in our great nation.
For the last five years, as I indicated, I have been involved, not by design, in the effort of trying to move the ball up the field toward that goal of true equality. Many of you in this room have been equally as involved as much as I, Manny [Klausner] I mentioned, and Sheri [Annis] and David [Horowitz], and others here have been very involved in this effort. And I think that we're winning it, and I have no doubt about the fact that we're winning it. The Board of Regents in 1995 passing SP-1 and SP-2, which banned the consideration of race and ethnicity and sex in the admissions and employment and contracting policies of the University of California. And then followed by that, the people of California validated that proposition by a 900,000-vote plurality, which was greater than that which Bill Clinton had prevailed over Bob Dole. We would have won by an even greater margin, had not the Republican Party tried to help us—
—in the middle of October, three weeks before the election. Following that, we went on to the state of Washington, and had to deal there with corporate America. Bill Gates, who has subsequently put a billion dollars into a millennium scholarship program only for minorities—whites are the only group that is excepted from that; the Seattle Times ran full-page ads against us [sponsored by] Boeing, Microsoft, US Bank, and others, and we still won by a 58.5 to 41.5 margin, despite the Democratic tide that was rolling throughout the nation.
After that, I thought, I don't want to spend the rest of my life going state to state dealing with ballot initiatives, and I felt that we needed to make a strong statement in a state that mattered, and it seemed to me that the state of Florida was indeed such a state. I can't tell you how many of those in my party, the Republican Party, told me, "Don't do it"—let Jeb Bush, a Republican, get a strong hold on voters in the state of Florida, and then maybe, just maybe, he will follow you and give you some support. I felt that there were certain principles that we should not compromise, and that we should not give any slack to Republicans or Democrats, and I think that it would have compromised the integrity of our position had we bowed to that kind of counsel that was being given to us.
I went to Florida in January of 1999 and met with Jeb, and he was very proud of the 14 percent of the black vote that he received in 1998, and thought that he could build on that. He pointed to a picture on the wall that said, "I Want To Help Them," and it was a picture of a number of black students. I kind of rolled my eyes a little bit and said, "You think I don't?"
From that day on it was really sheer hell in the state of Florida, with the Republican Party denying me access to their delegates. I tried to get a booth at the convention, that was denied. I tried to get a get a hospitality suite, that was denied. We tried to get a list of vendors so that we could contact them, that was denied. In short, we have had to battle my party every step of the way in the state of Florida. In an effort to pre-empt us, knowing full well that we weren't going away, considering the fact that every poll taken shows that we have 65 percent support among Floridians, Jeb issued his own executive order. That executive order is limited to higher education. It eliminates preferences but it also guarantees admission to all students who are in the top 20 percent of their high school. However educationally unsound that it might be, it does in fact eliminate the preferences based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender. Jeb also eliminates contracting set-asides in those fifteen state agencies that are under his immediate control. Those state agencies that are not under his control are left alone, and of course all of local government is exempted from his executive order. So, while it's a step in the right direction and he would not have made it had we had not been there, it is far from a solution to the problem of eliminating preferences in the state of Florida. But it is in fact forcing this issue to be part of the presidential campaign and that really was our objective: to force it on to the national public agenda so that the nation can talk about it and hopefully come to some conclusion with regard to it.
Now, why have I done this? Why have I done this? I didn't ask to be on the Board of Regents. I didn't seek appointment to a twelve-year, unpaid sentence—
—serving the people of my state. I didn't seek this. But I found compelling evidence that in fact the University of California, which is clearly, in my view, one of the best public institutions in this nation, was lying. At the bottom of every document, it says the University does not discriminate on the basis of race, and you've heard it; you know all the different things that follow thereafter. Well, that's true as long the person who is a victim of that discrimination happens to be an underrepresented minority, or female, or disabled—but if it comes to someone that the University feels we need to build diversity for, then it's not discrimination, it's inclusion.
You have to find code words in order to justify what the University was doing. And I grew up believing that if you can't defend a policy by telling what it is, if you're afraid to say that we're giving preferences on the basis of race, that there's something wrong with that policy. If it has such merit, why do you have to surround it with code words?
And so I took on the action of trying to eliminate preferences on the basis of race. Not all affirmative action is bad, but preferences on the basis of race are bad.
I was born in 1939, in the Deep South, in Louisiana. Segregated. My father left the household when he was two. I didn't see him for 55 years after that. He came to my grandmother's house one day, with his girlfriend on his right arm, and he said to my grandmother that he didn't want us any more, that he was tired of married life, and that he wanted to be with his girlfriend Lucy. My mother died two years later. I was raised by a maternal aunt, and her husband, and my grandmother.
I grew up believing that I could do anything that I wanted to do. My Uncle James was a great believer that you empower people by making them tough, by not letting them know what their limitations are. He never went beyond the third grade in school. He would come home at the end of a long week, bring his check into my Aunt, and it would take him five minutes to sign his name. But he was never without work one day in his life. No job was too long, no day was too long, no work was too menial, but it ground in me the sense of self-reliance. You often hear about dysfunctional black families. Those weren't the kind of people I grew up with. They were not dysfunctional. They worked hard. They believed in their nation! They had strong, strong values. I had to shine my shoes, mow the lawn, make sure the dog was fed, make sure that the car was clean, and those were my four requirements that I had until I left the household at age fifteen.
Long after I had gotten married, I went out to see my Uncle James, my shoes had better be shined and my car had better be clean so that a white handkerchief could be wiped across it without any dirt getting on it.
My family was a multiracial family. We never heard the term African-American. We never talked about color! There was Indian, there was French-Canadian, there was some African descent on my father's side, there was Irish, Choctaw Indian—we never talked about color! Even in those days people were breaking the barrier lines and getting married without regard to race.
So I grew up never knowing a lot of these distinctions that we made nowadays.
I went to a community college, American River Junior College. I went there despite the fact that I had about a 3.9, because there were just four kids in my area—black kids—who wanted to go to college. And one of them had the wheels. And therefore we went where the guy who had the wheels decided to go to school.
He had wheels but bad grades.
And so we went to American River Junior College. I then transferred to Sacramento State College. And while I was at Sacramento State College, I found out that right across the street from the college, where all the faculty lived, was the most blatant racial discrimination in housing that you have ever seen. So we sent out a number of testers to validate the fact that there was discrimination in housing in the River Park area of Sacramento. After our study came out, Dr. West, the president of the college, called me as the student body vice president into his office and said "Let's have dinner."
So that night we went to dinner, and Dr. West said, "This is not Berkeley. We have a great relationship with our community." The code word was: leave it alone. So I went and saw Dr. Thompson, a tall, Lincolnesque professor for whom I was a student reader, and I shared with him the meeting with Dr. West and said, "What should I do?" Dr. Thompson said, "What does your knower tell you?" I said, "What?" "What does your knower tell you?"
Dr. Thompson had this view that all of us have an internal compass—that's our knower.
If I asked you, "What do you think about that, Frank?" "Well, I don't know, but I just know." You don't have any logical explanation, but you just know. My knower said, "Stay with it. Stay with it." And so I finalized a report, and that report became the basis for a lot of the arguments for the Rutherford Fair Housing Act.
After I graduated from college, I had the choice of going on to Syracuse University, but I had fallen in love, and my wife was of a different skin color than I was. We decided that even though this was illegal in every state in this union, and it was not made legal until 1967, that we would not let that stand in our way. We got married in August of 1962.
I've seen the cold stares of my society because two people are of a different color. I've seen those cold stares. I've seen that subtle, passing judgement of people that we do in our society. I remember going looking for an apartment after I got married and nothing was available. Eileen would go two hours later and twenty apartments were out there—everybody moved out between the time that I went and the time she came by, you know?
So I've seen those type of things. I know what discrimination is. I remember when we got married and her folks disowned her. My grandmother said to me, "Why can't you find a nice colored girl?" I went back after about five months and said "how could you have said that, Mom?" She said, "I would have said it if the person was white, if she was colored I would have said 'Why don't you find a nice white girl?' I didn't want you getting married."
It took about a year before Eileen's parents came to terms with the marriage. I remember one day I drove up there and took Eileen and her folks wanted to see her but they didn't want to see me. I parked outside, in front of the house, for four hours while she was in with her parents. I sat there, humiliated.
They were not racists! They were not racists! This was something that these people, born in Arkansas and Idaho, never had to deal with in their whole lives. Living in a rural town: bowling alleys, coffee shops, 10,000 people. It would have been so easy for me to write this off as racism. It wasn't. It was a new experience for them. Today, you could not find people closer than my in-laws and me. They have grown, they have matured, and they have learned that love does not come in colors. And so as I look everyday at that goofy little card they sent me two years ago, with all these goofy-looking people on the card, which says, "You have no one to blame for coming into this family but yourself—Love, Mom and Dad," I think of that great American experiment of how we can all grow, and how we should always be careful about how we assign people to categories, and writing them off.
Racial profiling—I remember, in 1997, I went to the St. Francis hotel, and I had been inducted into the building industry hall of fame, and I was the MC for that banquet. And as I'm getting off the elevator, going to my room, putting down my bags, coming back out, I realized that I had left my briefcase in my car. David, you know that you don't leave your briefcase, when you're as busy as we are, in your car. So I went back to the car to get my briefcase.
As I'm approaching the elevator, these two elderly white gentlemen approach, and one of them asks, "Are you the man who has the keys to open the room?" I was offended; why would he think that I'm just an employee here! I'm a guest! I'm the MC! So I said, "No! I am not the man who has the keys to open the room!"
I felt angry by my own reaction. I was carrying baggage on my shoulders here. So I turned around and went back and I asked, "Why did you ask me whether I'm the man who has the keys to open the room?"
He said, "We meant no harm, sir. You had a gray blazer on, gray slacks, you had no luggage, you were going to the elevator as if you knew where you were going." They thought I was an employee! See how easy it is sometimes to jump to conclusions thinking that race is a factor when in fact it may not be? It might have been, but I don't think it was in that instance. Sometimes we carry those bags on our shoulders, all of us. And we put ourselves into somebody else's place.
There are many issues our society is going to have to deal with. The whole issue of gay rights—we're going to have to deal with that. Step outside our own shoes and walk in the other person's shoes. The whole issue of race. What does it mean? What does it mean here at the dawn of the 21st century? One out of every three Americans is inter-racial or inter-ethnic. Fourteen percent of kids born are multi-racial. Just as there are "blacks" sitting there who have white ancestry, there are a lot of whites sitting there that have black ancestry. We still cling to these outmoded concepts of race. The Census now gives us multiple choice, but after we check one they make the decision which one they're going to assign us to.
So my life is one of exploring all the possibilities of freedom and liberty. It's a muscle that you have to use. Life is without meaning to me if I can't be what I am and be what I want to be. That's why I said I don't like the term "African-American." You're making the decision about which part of my heritage I should be cherishing. It's not that I am uncomfortable with my skin. It's that I don't look at any person and assume that you are Irish, or Scandinavian, or Italian. Why then must you look at me and make such presumptions? My grandkids are part Irish, part Indian, part of African descent, part Asian, part French. What are they going to check?
So part of this battle that I am involved with is really for them. It's really for them. It's really for them. If not for me, the choice of wanting to believe that who I am is far more important than what I am, than let it be for them. Let it be for them. Let it be for the next generation. So that race, and as John F. Kennedy once said, "Race has no place in American life or law." That is the goal. That's the endgame. That's what we're working toward.
And the book tries to show the possibilities of that happening. In my life, I can validate that it's possible. A colorblind society where we do not judge people on the basis of those traits. It is possible. The book opens up the possibility of how that can happen. And civilization doesn't end! I was told when I was married that this was "an abomination of God. People don't cross racial lines. The Bible says it doesn't happen!"
I've made an enormous contribution, I think, to my community. And civilization hasn't been affected!
So, thank you all for coming. Thank you very much.
© 2000 Center for the Study of Popular Culture