Sadler Poe

My classmates and I (your trusty editor) celebrated our 50th college reunion on campus this past June. One special feature of the event was a massive, Class of ’67 coffee table book to which we were invited to contribute  bios, essays, poems, and pictures. One of the essays was particularly stirring, as it presented a southern classmate’s honest grappling with this nation’s long-running racial divide. As children during the ’50s, we grew up amid de jure segregation in the south and a more insidious variety in the north, both cruel and both contrary to the ideals of our nation. President Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of our freshman year and Vietnam cast a long shadow over the entirety of our undergraduate years, but the urgent issue that struck at the very soul of America was its shameful racial history, and present. Only a handful of our classmates were African-Americans. On the white side of the racial divide, we professed the meritocratic ideal; those on the other side, however, faced stiff headwinds no matter which way life took them, no matter their ability or determination. Sadler has allowed me to reprint his essay here; I do so with the hope that it will serve as a reminder that a poem requires honesty no matter how hard the subject.

Thoughts on Race at Princeton and in America

The November 2015 sit-in in President Eisgruber’s office by the Black Justice League and its demands for “safe areas” and safe (read segregated) housing for blacks in a hostile campus environment made me recall my own experience at Princeton and how I grew as a result of it. I arrived at Princeton having never seen the place. I knew one alumnus, Bob Wendt, whom I met when I drove to Columbia, S.C., for a Schools Committee interview. However, Princeton had a reputation in my hometown of Rock Hill, S.C., as a hotbed of liberalism, probably because many people in the South were paranoid about the changes portended for their lives by Supreme Court decisions and Congressional acts, all of which were sponsored by the northerners who simply “didn’t understand us.” Princeton was in New Jersey, New Jersey was in the North, ergo New Jersey and Princeton were part of the enemy. There was no room for nuance in the argument.

So when I arrived I fully expected to be on the defensive. Sure enough, that was the case. No sooner had my parents left than Rod Furnald, one of my roommates, invited me to go to see his cousin Tim Buxton who was a junior. Earlier that summer Tim had joined the March on Washington where King delivered his I-have-a-dream speech, and much of the conversation (in which I participated exclusively as a listener) focused on that experience. My first response was to go back to my room and tack a Confederate battle flag above the mantel in 85 Patton. But perhaps my retelling that 50-year-old story shows the profound influence that experience had on me.

That first experience in confronting my values was followed by many others. During my freshman year Princeton still had a mandatory chapel requirement. One of my earliest attempts to comply was at the First Presbyterian Church. Congregants remained after the service for a coffee social, and I joined them. Upon hearing my accent one of the members inserted himself into a conversation I was having with another couple by telling me “You are really in the thick of it.” Until that point the conversation hadn’t touched the race issue, but there it was in what I understood to be a not-so-subtle demand that I justify myself. The Voting Rights Act was either under consideration or had just passed. At a party in our suite a black kid and I had a rather heated discussion about the merits of that act. I rather vigorously took the position that a literate electorate was essential for democracy; he equally vigorously asserted that people could learn about issues in many ways other than reading. I didn’t admit it then, but I felt he probably had the better part of the argument. I became convinced when I considered how southern whites had used the literacy laws to exclude blacks from the polls.

I could go on and on with these stories, but the point is that I gradually learned to come to grips with my racism, not through formal classes, but through unplanned events that forced me to think. None of my roommates over the years was a southerner, and none other than Furnald was particularly liberal, but if I had roomed only with southerners, I would never have had to confront beliefs that were contrary not only to the fundamental principles of our country, but also contrary to the fundamentals of my faith.

It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that I do not agree with the demands for “safe areas” and separate housing for blacks. On the other hand, the events in Ferguson, Charleston, New York, Baltimore, and Chicago that provided impetus, and perhaps justification, for the students’ actions have been amplified by events mid-2016 in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas.

How is it that we are still so divided by race? In our four years at Princeton the Civil Rights Movement reached its height. The years of quiet that followed Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 were followed by an eruption of civil rights acts, Supreme Court decisions. and administrative decisions that promised a resolution of the issues that have plagued our country since its inception. Many of these occurred during our tenure at Princeton. But 50 years later, that promise seems far from being fulfilled. It’s not just the horrific acts that occurred in the cities I mentioned. Our society seems to demand that we view blacks, whites, Hispanics, and other minorities as groups that have their own characteristics. Studies of how each group performs vis à vis the others are routine. As I write this, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign in which both major party candidates have intentionally structured their campaigns to appeal to specific racial or ethnic groups. Attracting voters by playing to perceived racial characteristics is racial profiling in my book. We seem to thrive on racial classifications.

I have wrestled with the question of why the promise of our college years failed to be realized. Maybe the problem was that our aspirations were too high. Social change of the magnitude required to end racial division in our society would be difficult to achieve in five decades. That answer, of course, is easier for a white man to accept than for an African American. Another reason might be that we have never set a consistent course for bringing the races together. As someone who grew up in small town South Carolina, I had assumed the strategy was to integrate the races. After all, that is how the changes originally manifested themselves: school desegregation, integrating lunch counters, restaurants and hotels, ending separate accommodations in public transport, hospitals, etc.

Looking back, I am not sure there was ever a consensus in favor of integration. There was significant integration in the South, of course, but it resulted from court decisions and legislation that enforced equality before the law. Integration of the races was not so much the intent as the result. Equality before the law was sufficient in the view of many Americans because that concept bottomed on neutral principles. If the legal obstacles to black advancement were removed, then blacks themselves would be able to overcome the effects of discrimination. Remove state-sponsored discrimination, and economic disparities would take care of themselves. Government would merely act as the referee to make sure the neutral principles were given room to succeed. A quintessentially American (white American?) idea.

It soon became apparent, however, that equality before the law would not resolve the issues separating the races. Thus came the push for equality in fact. The idea is that equality before the law is either ineffective or too slow to achieve economic and social equality. Direct intervention is required to rebalance the scale. Affirmative action became a vehicle for achieving equality in fact. Affirmative action, however, often has the effect of pitting one race against the other. A person who lost out on a promotion or a university admission to someone who “objectively” was less qualified isn’t likely to be a fan of affirmative action. Whether the aggrieved person’s objectivity was really objective doesn’t much matter if they believed it was. If the price of equality in fact is for government to pick (appear to pick) winners on the basis of race, then that price may be too dear for the losers. Furthermore, the argument against affirmative action is so deceptively simple that politicians can use it to arouse the worst in whites while nominally supporting the notion of racial equality: If it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, then how is it right to favor blacks over whites in jobs, promotions or college admissions on the basis of their race? It’s a poor rule that doesn’t work both ways.

Affirmative action gave way to “diversity” as a way of achieving equality in fact. The idea is that if diverse groups are put together, they will function better than they would separately. There was an article in the December 9, 2015 New York Times to just that effect. So integration becomes a positive good by way of putting diverse groups together. There aren’t winners and losers. Everybody wins. The problem, unfortunately, is that diversity remains a positive good only so long as people remain diverse. Or put another way, racial classifications must persist.

This mixed-bag of goals has resulted in significant progress. State-sponsored segregation has now been virtually eliminated. There has been tremendous progress in opening jobs to minorities. Moreover, attitudes have begun to change. My father, who operated a small business in my hometown, employed about an equal number of blacks and whites. He would never have considered allowing one of his black employees to serve as a clerk in his store. My nephew, who runs the business today, has no such qualms. Although there have been some recent setbacks, blacks still vote. Moreover, black elected officials court and receive support from whites.

The progress has not been equal to the task, however. If we indulge our propensity to compare one group to the other by certain metrics—e.g., education, compensation, professions, etc.—blacks typically come up short. Neither equality before the law nor equality in fact proved sufficient in a timeframe measured in decades. Affirmative action and diversity may have made matters worse by exacerbating the differences between the races.

The picture is even bleaker if you compare the significant progress to the hopes and aspirations of African Americans and probably a good many whites. When you throw in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Charleston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, the progress is even less impressive. Whether you agree with their actions or not, there is little wonder that black students reacted.

I, for one, think the current state of affairs is unacceptable and that to rectify the situation, we must find a new direction for our society. I propose that we make a renewed commitment to the ideal of integration, but with a twist. Instead of focusing on race, I propose that we focus on culture. Race is not what divides us so much as the two separate cultures we have developed. Moreover, race as a biological fact is increasingly becoming irrelevant.

Putting us all in a pot and then stirring it is probably the only way we will move beyond our original sin. As a practical matter, stirring the pot is not that big a deal: It has already happened. Race as a matter of genetics is already a very vague concept in the U.S. As I understand it, scientists already say that Caucasian is not really a race—whatever that means. Genomic testing shows that very few blacks in the country are of purely African descent. What about whites? Until I viewed a Smithsonian exhibition on Jefferson’s slaves, I had thought that whites were pretty much lily white. The exhibition focused on the descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jefferson freed them, and as they moved around the country, some of them “passed.” No doubt this sort of thing has happened with some frequency with other former slaves. Bottom line, there are a lot of whites out there who think, mistakenly, that they have only European ancestry. Have genetics paved the way for us to move away from defining each other by race?

Of course not. Race is still a handy term defining who we are—albeit incorrectly. Although Barack Obama is 50/50 European and African, he is viewed as an African American by virtually everybody. Makes no sense to me, especially since he was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. I find it difficult to distinguish his attitudes and values from mine. Remove his policies from the equation and you may, as well. Yet he is universally described as our first black president. Why? Because both black and white cultures say so. Color seems to trump class. Here we are in 2016 and we’re still making decisions the same way we did in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, where a man whose sole black ancestor was his great grandfather was arrested for sitting in a railroad carriage that was reserved for whites. This nonsense has got to stop.

Analyzing the problem, however, is easier than devising a solution. The oft-suggested conversation on race is not the answer. We have never really had a conversation about race, probably because it would be so one-sided. Whites have clearly been guilty of discrimination and worse. There would be no mutuality in any such conversation. Whites can hardly enter such a conversation without first donning a hair shirt. Maybe justice demands that approach, but if it does, I’m afraid that justice is going to be deferred. I don’t think that approach would meet Dale Carnegie’s criteria for how to win friends and influence people. But if we try to maintain separate cultures that converge during the day at work and at school only to pull back at night into segregated neighborhoods, we will never stop using race as a measuring rod. Skin color will continue to be the proxy for all kinds of decisions we make.

Any solution is going to require hard work by both blacks and whites. That may sound unfair. Whites are certainly responsible for the racial mess we find ourselves in, but having created the mess, they can’t solve it by themselves. The fruits of racism are so entrenched in our society that no top-down solution—one that is devised and implemented by whites—will work. We need both sides to put their backs to the wheel to put things aright.

We need to shift the discussion from race to culture because cultures are more malleable than race. Such a discussion can be tricky because cultural differences are clearest at great altitude, and ironically, are murkier the closer our vantage. The horror of Charleston brought about a serious discussion among whites concerning the Confederate battle flag. Not every one was convinced that the flag should be removed. When I drive to my vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina—ironically to a place where the black population is tiny—I see more than one pickup with two battle flags flying from staffs affixed to the back corners. Despite the resistance of some yahoos, a dialog has begun. Like my experiences at Princeton, this kind of confrontation forces people to think. Over time, change happens.

Similarly, the student protest at Princeton has forced the University (and us) to consider the entirety of Wilson’s legacy. Although we never celebrated Wilson’s racism when we were at the University, I can’t remember any discussions that weren’t adulatory. I don’t know whether the folks who decided how to portray Wilson were ignorant of his attitudes and actions, chose to ignore them, or agreed with them. Whichever makes no difference. It’s plain as day that they can’t smooth them over anymore. The point is that the question has been posed, and people throughout the University community and even beyond are forced to think. The issue has been joined within the white community.

Blacks need to have similar discussions. For example, education has been the key to advancement for so many minority groups in this country, the most prominent today being Asians. But before them were the Jews, the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, and so on. I don’t know why blacks have not turned to education, and it may be that discrimination and poverty, the two reasons most often cited for blacks’ failure to match whites in education results, make it extremely difficult for them to succeed. But other groups seem to overcome such obstacles. Another article in the December 9 issue of the New York Times (Immigrants Still Find a Welcome in America) noted that “the children of the least-educated immigrants are much better educated than their parents. They find much better jobs.”

Of course there is a vast difference between people who come to this country willingly and often at great peril and those who are born here and face great peril. But there is something tantalizing in the immigrant story that suggests that poverty and ignorance are not insurmountable obstacles to the advancement of subsequent generations. Sacrifice and determination probably have a good deal to do with the immigrants’ success.

One last point: We have already had a good deal of success in changing white culture. Think back to our time at Princeton and the Pollack jokes that were all the rage. There was also a plethora of other readily identifiable ethnic groups in the country: Irish, Italians, Jews, Hungarians, WASPs and others. How many of those groups do you hear about today? There may be occasional references, but they are rare. They have all become part of white America. Sometime during junior or senior year, my rooming group invited Sir Arthur Lewis, a Nobel Laureate in economics, to join us for beer, cheddar, and Triscuits. Remarkably, he accepted and then followed up with an invitation for us to join him and his wife for dinner at his home. He had grown up in Jamaica, and the conversation turned toward race and American society generally. I was struck when he challenged the “melting pot” metaphor we routinely used to describe ourselves. He rejected that metaphor and substituted his own: welding shop. His point was that even among citizens of European ancestry, we were joined only at the edges. Thus Poles stayed with Poles, Italians with Italians, WASPs with WASPs, and so on. Fifty years later, I believe he would revert to the melting pot, at least insofar as white America is concerned. Today the only ethnic groups you hear about in addition to blacks are Hispanics and Asians and the several subgroups of each.

If the dream of the melting pot can be realized among Americans of European ancestry, it can also be realized among whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, especially if we focus on our respective cultures. Assimilation is not a bad word if it is mutual.



Current Issue
Contributors' Notes

Email this poem Printer friendly page

A CLOSER LOOK: Pattiann Rogers

Kristin Berkey-Abbott

G.F. Boyer

Dan Campion

Grace Cavalieri

Barbara Crooker

Terence Culleton

Moira Egan

Rod Jellema

Jean L. Kreiling

Michael Lauchlan

Sean Lause

Laura Manuelidis

Janet McCann on Barbara Crooker

George Moore

D. Nurkse

Kurt Olsson

Roger Pfingston

Sadler Poe

Karen Sagstetter

David Salner

Marjorie Stelmach

Robert Joe Stout

Bart Sutter

Mary-Sherman Willis on Kim Roberts

Anne Harding Woodworth on Martin Galvin

Martha Zweig














Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021 - 2:35:35 PM

Copyright 2005 - 2021 Cook Communication.