Hwesu Samuel Murray
On Saturday I attended the Columbia University Homecoming football game against Dartmouth. It was a beautiful day for eating fried chicken, rice and garden salad, and sipping white wine under the big tent, while meeting other alumni and students. It was a perfect day for football, even though Columbia was a bit overmatched against Dartmouth. Still, the breathtaking view, from Wien Stadium, (some of us still call it “Baker Field”), of the Hudson River meeting the Harlem River amid majestic trees at the tip of Manhattan, never gets old.
As a Black American, who was part of the 60’s generation that fought for racial integration in American universities, I was disappointed to see so few black faces in the crowd. Simultaneously, I was amazed at the large percentage of Asian faces in the crowd. Not only has a lot changed since I earned my Masters in ’72; a lot has changed in the last 10 years!
We recently saw the film, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Although it is a work of fiction, unlike “Black Panther,” the film is based upon reality. I think that every Black person should see that film and then ask themselves, “How did this happen?” How did Asian cities grow while Baltimore, Trenton, Flint, Detroit and many other American cities declined? As I mingled through the crowd during the halftime it was obvious that three of the main characters in the movie were based upon some of the real-life attractive, brilliant and ambitious young Asian people who were cheering along with me for Columbia.
At the same time, in the back of my mind, I recalled the recent lawsuit brought by a small group of Asian high school students against Harvard for admitting some Black students by taking race into account and, (according to their lawsuit), giving seats to Black students that they say should have gone to Asian students. This I find highly offensive.
But for the efforts of Black people to integrate American colleges and universities and American businesses, today’s young Asians would never have gotten in because they had no movement to get them there. It is to add insult to injury to sue against the very people who opened the door for your parents and grandparents. My impression is that many young Asians have no knowledge of this history. Indeed, many are children of immigrants. Others are Asian citizens who are studying in the United States.
I can remember when I entered office buildings in mid-town Manhattan in the early 1970s and the only other Black people were the cleaning staff or mail room delivery guys. Indeed, in those days, there were no Asians at all among the faces in the crowd working in New York City office buildings.
I remembered the tough fight that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had in 1978, when it was fighting for affirmative action in higher education, and against the claim of Black “racial preferences;” and, against Alan Bakke’s claim that he was a victim of “reverse-discrimination” when he applied to medical school at the University of California at Davis. By the time of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, “racial preference,” an intentionally-wrong label, and, thus, inherently doomed, lost before the Supreme Court. However, “diversity” won; and, here we are today. I have heard some intellectuals refer to Asians as, “honorary white people,” suggesting that white people get along better with Asians than they do with Black folks.
One of the things that I realized early on while working in corporate is that, while we as Black students integrated white colleges and universities, for large numbers of white people there was no point in time when they ever learned to cooperate with, or take orders from, Black people. Thus, our being Black and more academically accomplished only hardened their attitudes against us. That had a profoundly negative impact on Black advancement within corporate America.
A few years ago, I happened to visit Queens College, where I earned my B.A. in English. I walked into the cafeteria that held so many memories. I happened to notice a group of Black students who were having a good old time being loud, animated and very, very noticeable. I also noticed that there were several groups of Asians students, at several tables, who were quietly studying in the cafeteria!
All of this raises the question of the impact of politics vs. the impact of culture. Politics involves not only active support for a political party, but also active support for issues of the day. The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement were political movements. Both movements grew out of Black culture. The Black Arts movement grew out of support for the Black Nationalist Movement.
Politicians come and go. Yet, while they are in power, they have great influence. Most of the politicians who promoted and supported America’s war in Viet Nam are now long gone. Few of them are left to explain the purpose of that war. Why did my Black friend from Brooklyn, Tony Powell, die in Viet Nam at only 19? Why did my white team mate from my high school track and field team, Wayne Bernhardt, die in Viet Nam at only 19? Why did so many boys lose their lives, or return broken, or disappear forever?
During the 1970s there were Black intellectuals in America’s elite colleges who would say things like, “Everybody knows that in the future, there will be coalitions of Black people, other people of color, and women, who will bring change against the white power structure.” Where are those coalitions? Where are those “coalition” believers today? Why are they so quiet, (except for their criticism of President Barack Obama)? What do they have to say about the enormous success of the feminist movement? What do they have to say about the Asian lawsuit against Harvard for admitting Black students through affirmative action?
The great irony is that the political movement for “diversity” that enabled Asians to gain a foothold into American universities has been enhanced with an Asian culture that stresses not only academic achievement, but academic perfection. My unscientific view of the kids at Columbia, and those who are behind the suit against Harvard, is that many or most or perhaps all of them do not play basketball, do not party, do not watch TV, and spend most of their waking hours either in class or studying for class.
They never heard of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They never heard of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They never heard of Bull Conner. They never heard that President Andrew Johnson pulled the federal troops out of the south, ending Reconstruction and ushering in the modern age of terror. All they know is that they have straight A’s, hit 750 on their SATs and in this perfect world their seat in Harvard is supposed to be guaranteed.
They are academically intelligent but historically and socially ignorant. They have no idea that, until relatively recently in American history, the only opportunities for Asian advancement were in Chinese restaurants and Chinese laundries. That changed because Black people marched, Black people sang, “We shall overcome,” and Black people died fighting for civil rights for all.
I have no problem seeing lots of Asians in college. God bless them. I believe in competition. Asians take advantage of the opportunities that Black people made possible. They are smart and they are determined. I have a very big problem with seeing so few Black students in college, after so much effort and sacrifice to open the very doors that others are now walking through. I am not seeing the Black faces in colleges and in corporate offices that I expected to see at this point in time.
Most of the colleges in this country were still segregated when I started college in September, 1966. Many colleges that I enjoyed watching play football on television were still segregated well into the 70’s. We took advantage of opportunities that our civil rights efforts created and integrated colleges all across the country, and competed against whites in a then-binary world that was mostly black or white. Now, it seems that someone dropped the baton and it hasn’t been passed from one generation to the next.
Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Today one may ask, “What happens to several generations of dreams deferred?” Perhaps so-called “opportunities” have become invisible. Perhaps the dreams simply fade away, replaced by a hardened view of life as one disappointment after another, no matter how hard one tries.
The wave of Asians in colleges has brought, and continues to bring, a wave of Asians into the workplace and entrepreneurship. We live in a world of competition. Asians are competitive. Read “China, Inc.” We as Black people must continue to be competitive.
The 60’s generation was extremely competitive. In fact, fifty years ago this month, I saw some wonderful competition: guys with whom I ran track win medals in the Olympics in Mexico City. Vince Matthews, my team mate at Andrew Jackson High School who ran for Johnson C. Smith, ran lead-off on the 1600 meter relay that broke the world and Olympic record. Brother Ron, (Phi Nu Pi), Freeman, from Jefferson High in New Jersey, who ran for Arizona State, ran second leg. Larry James, from White Plains High School, (who, five months earlier, ran a 43.9 anchor leg for Villanova on the mile relay at the Penn Relays), ran third leg. I remember the great Lee Evans from San Jose State sitting down next to me on the infield at Madison Square Garden during the Millrose Games while we were waiting to be called for our races. Lee ran anchor on that relay: 2:56.1. The record stood for 30 years! Greatest race of all time! Lee won gold in the 400 meters. Larry won silver. Ron copped bronze. An American sweep!
Bob Beamon, from Jamaica High, and the University of Texas at El Paso, destroyed the long jump with a leap of 29 feet, 2.5 inches, that stood for 23 years. John Carlos, from Manhattan Vocational High School and San Jose State copped a bronze and, with Tommie Smith, of San Jose State, created the most enduring image of all time when they gave the Black Power salute on the victory stand. Tommie Farrell, who ran for St. John’s, (with Brother Les Agard-Jones), won a bronze in the 800 meters. Our Good Brother Charlie Greene, who ran for Kansas, won gold on the 400 meter relay and bronze in the 100 meter dash. I knew every single guy, and most of the ladies, by name who was on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team because I saw them at meets and read about them in the papers.
So, as a trackman, I come from the competitive culture of fighting for an opportunity and then doing your best. Sweats off! On your mark! Get set! Pow!
Both the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Nationalist movement, were movements in which we fought for our rights and for opportunities.
Sometimes I think that Black America lost World War III to China. Sometimes I thank that Black America lost The Second Civil War to feminism and racism. Sometimes I think that Black America, like John Henry, lost to the new steam drill called “high technology.” Sometimes I think that Black America lost its soul to anti-bourgeois, “keeping it real” street culture posing as Black authenticity.
Somewhere along the way, we put a Black man into the White House, but lost two or three generations of Black boys and men to what one playwright in 1971 called “Black Dada Nihilism.”
I could listen to soul music all day. I could listen to good jazz all day. I listen to classical music in the morning. I love Gospel music. I love spirituals. But, I find it painful to listen, and cannot listen, to what has become generally popular. I was shocked to hear gangsta rap played during halftime at Columbia. The difference, though, is obvious: for the kids at Columbia, it is a mere rebellious affectation; for my young brothers in Mt. Vernon, and Brooklyn, and Harlem, and St. Albans, where I grew up, it is a way of life. What happens to a mind when it absorbs gangsta rap all day long?
We have a responsibility to do some types of work without regard to who occupies the Oval Office. We are not going to get Black young men into Columbia, or Harvard or any college at all if we can’t get them to graduate from high school. Black America may have embraced politics as a cure-all at the expense of culture.
And, as “Crazy Rich Asians” and Columbia’s Homecoming teach, culture matters.
Hwesu S. Murray is a lawyer and the author of “African American Economic Development: A Plan for Black America,” available on Amazon.