What to Frederick Douglass is Affirmative Action?

I read “What to the Black Citizen is the Fourth of July”[1] and it made me think about Douglass and contemporary Black America. The blogger recalls how Douglass said the holiday could not be celebrated the same way in the Black community as it was in the White community. The blogger goes on to comment about how, even today, the Black community celebrates the Fourth of July in a distinct way.

I really liked how the post incorporated Douglass’ ideas and applied it to modern times.  Here I’ll do something very similar. Douglass’ brilliance is so impressive that I think it’s imperative we apply it to current issues.

In particular I want to discuss affirmative action and explain why Douglass would be so vehemently opposed to it.

Affirmative action is one of the most divisive political issues of our day. At the University of Michigan we often see members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)[2]. BAMN members are very active in their support of affirmative action.[3] Since the group is so well known, I thought it appropriate to examine their argument.

BAMN argues that the legacy of racism in America is strong and still very much alive.

The way to combat this racism is forced integration in education. BAMN’s ideology is best captured in a 1965 quote from President Johnson.

“We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result…To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.”[4]

What does Frederick Douglass have to say to President Johnson? What would Douglass say about affirmative action?

To President Johnson, Douglass would respond that equal opportunity was enough. Or perhaps Douglass would expand on that thought.

“Everybody has asked the question. . .”What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!” [5]

Frederick Douglass grew up in slavery. He experienced a life where a White man was perpetually telling him what he should do. He was told where he had to go and with whom he was to associate.

Douglass rightly saw this as an assault on freedom. He didn’t want anyone to tell the Black man where to go or what to do.

What should be done with the Black man? According to Douglass, the answer is nothing. The Black man can fend for himself. He does not need the benevolence of affirmative action. Equality of opportunity will suffice.

Do Frederick Douglass’ words still matter today? Is his argument still viable? That’s the question. At the least, we should seriously consider his opinion.

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2 Responses to What to Frederick Douglass is Affirmative Action?

  1. Although Douglass was strongly opposed to government interference with African Americans, I believe if he was to see the oppression that African Americans still face today due to slavery centuries ago he would not be vehemently against political actions in favor of helping African Americans similar to Affirmative Action. Programs such as Affirmative Action actually push to create equality for African Americans and other minorities, not give them some kind of unfair advantage over other people. This is the same kind of equality Douglass wrote about and desired for the African Americans. Without practicing political theories such as Affirmative Action there is no real “equality of opportunity” due to financial, political, and legal issues that overwhelmingly effect the black community more than the white community. Therefore, if Douglass was alive today he should be in favor of programs such as Affirmative Action.

  2. megsavel says:

    I think Douglass would not be in favor of affirmative action if he were alive today. We discussed in class, and the original poster mentions how Douglass wanted African Americans to be treated the same as other citizens. Douglass was an extraordinary individual for being able to escape from slavery and to become such a major political player. Douglass’s writings suggest that he tended to believe that because he was able to do so well in life, that other people should be able to make something out of themselves as well, even if they were faced with many challenges. I do not think that it would have mattered to Douglass that affirmative action is meant to level the playing field, for Douglass it’s more about being allowed on the field, after that it’s up to the individual.

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