Bayard Rustin, the brilliant civil-rights strategist who organized the 1963 March on Washington and had a profound impact on Martin Luther King Jr., would have turned 100 tomorrow. In commemoration of the centennial of his birth, a new book, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life In Letters, (edited by Michael G. Long) has just been published. It is a volume that is rich in Rustin’s wisdom and highly relevant to today’s debates over issues from gay rights to affirmative action.
During the civil-rights movement, Rustin was forced to play a behind-the-scenes role, in part because he had been a Communist in his youth, and in part because he was openly gay during an era of profound homophobia. But in his supporting role, Rustin had an enormous influence on the civil-rights movement, serving, Vernon Jordan said, as “our intellectual bank, our Brookings Institution.” Rustin introduced King to nonviolence; when Rustin first met King during the Montgomery bus boycott, there were guns lying around King’s home for self-protection. And Rustin persuaded King to supplement his attack on institutions of racial discrimination with a powerful critique of economic inequality.
Rustin’s seminal 1965 article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” suggested that with passage of civil-rights legislation having destroyed “the legal foundation of racism,” it was necessary to take on issues of class inequality that continued to weigh down many African Americans—and low-income people of other races as well. With blacks constituting just one-tenth of the U.S. population, they needed allies, Rustin said, as he called for reinvigorating the March on Washington coalition of “Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.”
As “I Must Resist,” makes clear, Rustin opposed racial-preference programs in part because they would sunder this progressive coalition. He wrote in a 1974 letter: “to transform the demand for Negro rights into a call for the displacement of whites would inevitably elicit instantaneous and widespread resistance from a society otherwise disposed to view the civil-rights agenda favorably.” He argued, “weakening the merit principle and legitimate standards does no benefit to society, least of all to minorities.” Rustin knew that lower-middle-class whites were a swing vote in America, and that “the question is not whether this group is conservative or liberal, for it is both, and how it acts will depend upon the way the issues are defined.” Racial preferences encouraged working-class whites to vote their race, not their class.
But this did not mean that America was powerless to promote affirmative opportunities. In a 1987 address at Harvard University’s chapel, several months prior to his death, Rustin declared, “Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash. However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.”
Rustin also favored addressing class disadvantage head-on because to employ race as a loose proxy for class could lead to discussions that were racist in character. In the Harvard address, Rustin declared, “the new racist equates the pathology of the poor with race, ignoring the fact that family dissolution, teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, alcohol and drug abuse, street crime, and idleness are universal problems of the poor….They are rampant among the white jobless in Liverpool as well as among unemployed blacks in New York.”
Affirmative-action policies in higher education are, of course, back in the news as the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to consider a new challenge to racial preferences at the University of Texas this fall. Affirmative action remains deeply unpopular; a poll conducted last month by Rasmussen Reports found that Americans oppose affirmative action in higher education by 55 percent to 24 percent.
But Rustin’s life reminds us that there is another alternative; that there are principled liberal reasons to be skeptical of racial preferences and to favor a very different kind of affirmative action that attacks core issues of economic disadvantage.