[Ed. – Good on Slate for publishing this.]
In 2009, I attended the NAACP’s 100th annual convention at the Midtown Hilton in New York. Not just the centenary celebration for the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, this was also the group’s first convention under our newly inaugurated black president. The theme of the week’s events was to pay homage to the great civil rights victories of the past while at the same time defining a new mission for the next century. But on the night NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous took the stage for his big speech, when the subject turned to affirmative action, he didn’t sound like he was charting a new course so much as doubling down on the orthodoxy of the past. “The only question about affirmative action,” Jealous declared, “isn’t whether or not we need the hammer. The only question is whether or not the hammer is big enough!”
The line was met with thunderous applause. At the time, this didn’t really stand out to me, because, like a lot of well-intentioned but minimally informed white liberals, I believed in affirmative action. I didn’t have terribly strong convictions about it, but given America’s history it generally seemed like “the right thing to do.” That was five years ago. Then, in the course of writing a book about the history of the color line and our efforts to erase it, I took a closer look at the origins of affirmative action, and its results. Having done so, I’m a believer no more.