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In the early ’70s, one of my mentors at the University of Chicago told me there was a new theory of justice emerging in our country. “Bob,” he said, “It’s no longer equality of opportunity; it’s equality of results.” I did not accept his arguments in favor of this theory because I thought that equality of opportunity was the American way. After all, I thought, defining justice as equality of results meant fixing the results of the race for open positions according to group identity, regardless of individual talent and ambition. In A Theory of Justice, that ace liberal John Rawls had rejected equality of results in favor of “fair equality of opportunity.” Like Rawls, I believed it was “fair” for society to move disadvantaged and privileged people closer to the same starting line so that they could all compete fairly. 

I should have taken my mentor’s opinion seriously. Since the ’70s our country has been working to ensure that women, blacks, and other minorities are represented in every facet of our society according to their rough percentage in society. Businesses, sports, academic institutions, the police force, professional organizations, the press, churches, media, private and public bureaucracies, and clubs have been striving to include those left out because of sexism and racism. Indeed, we feel guilty if our achieved percentages are not high enough. Even Wall Street is concerned: Fifteen percent of the overall population is black, but only 10 percent of Wall Street operatives are black.

I was a member of a church—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—that so longed for “inclusivity and diversity” (it used those words far earlier than the surrounding society) that it adopted unpopular quotas to achieve those goals. Fifty percent of every committee, division, and representation had to be women; 10 percent had to be people of color (representation five times the number of people of color in the denomination). The ELCA has huffed and puffed for thirty years to reach that 10 percent target in the membership of the church itself, but to no avail—mainly because it has failed to evangelize black people. 

In my fifty-five years of teaching, I have never been in an educational institution that did not actively recruit women and blacks as faculty, staff, and students. Most made strong efforts to retain them, often going the extra mile in counseling students. That effort, of course, made it somewhat more challenging for white males to get faculty positions. 

Affirmative action efforts have been going on for fifty years. Recently they have reached a frenetic level in the “diversity and inclusion” ideology and movement. They have affected nearly all institutions in American society. They have been institutionalized in most organizations and bureaucracies. 

But the recent protests have led to wholesale amnesia about the past fifty years of affirmative action. The hysteria ignores the fact that we have had a half-century of “systematic affirmative action” rather than “systemic racism.” This systemic affirmative action has opened up many positions to women and blacks. Though we have had a lot of catching up to do, there has been measurable success.

Have all institutions practiced affirmative action? No, but it is increasingly difficult to resist the current “diversity and inclusion” wave. Our college has just promulgated a new diversity agenda, apparently oblivious to the fact that it has been fervently implementing a diversity agenda for several decades. Instead, the college acts as if it is mired in “systemic racism” and must cleanse itself. It will tolerate no dissent from the progressive take on racial or sexual issues. Have these efforts at affirmative action erased racism among all members of the white population? Assuredly not. Many black witnesses have told me that they are often harassed and treated harshly by police and some other institutions because of their race. I am sure that some whites harbor racist attitudes. But the larger society looks down on such attitudes and actions. Racism is called out and denounced when made public. In recent months we have seen exaggerated sensitivity to acts and words that are not likely racist at all. They just don’t fit into the current narrative.

Have these efforts at inclusion solved the problems that mire down a significant sector of the black population? Again, assuredly not. Poverty, crime, poor schools, single-parent families, gangs, and neighborhood decay are far too often the plight of that portion of our black population. A child born into these conditions through no fault of his own is certainly disadvantaged. To do justice means to practice “fair equality of opportunity” on their behalf. 

But what to do about improving the lot of those left behind? The Great Society programs of the ’60s and ’70s did not successfully address this challenge. Agitation and riots are counter-productive, and defunding the police would harm minorities rather than help. Welfare payments may assuage some of the raw conditions of poverty but also seem to increase dependency. Renewal will also have to come from within the black community, aided heavily by private and public agencies that can wisely discern the genuine agents of renewal. The churches will have to play a crucial role, as must other voluntary associations—such as charter or religious schools—that can help move disadvantaged people closer to the same starting line as citizens that have more advantages.

Our current focus on race is important. But the story of the last fifty years is a lot more complicated than the narrative of oppression and systemic racism. Instead of promoting these narratives, we need to build on the successes we have achieved and turn our attention to the formidable tasks ahead.

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

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