Bayard Rustin’s views on affirmative action: A critique

On February 28, 2019, The New York Times published a 6-minute multimedia video, narrated by Times contributing opinion writer Coleman Hughes, titled “The Gay, Black Civil Rights Hero Opposed to Affirmative Action: How would Bayard Rustin be judged today?”

Text accompanying the video states,

Bayard Rustin was a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and thought reparations, and even separate African-American studies departments, were a bad idea. Many of his beliefs would be antithetical to today’s social justice advocates. In the video above, Coleman Hughes argues that by cherry-picking our heroes, and focusing on small parts of their legacy, we are merely paying lip service to their mission.

While much of what is said in this video is accurate, I take exception to what I think are extreme statements.

Bayard did not oppose affirmative action. He opposed the use of strict racial quotas and affirmative action based solely on race. He supported class-based initiatives and, in fact, was the Chair of a successful program designed to bring the children of the working poor into labor apprenticeship programs. Though most of the participants were from racial minorities, that was because they were from groups who were disproportionately poor and working class.

He did not oppose Black Studies but he was afraid that they might lead to the marginalization of Black students. He felt it was important that they be part of the larger study of history — Black History is History! I don’t think his fears in this area have come to pass, but then I haven’t done a study on the state of Black Studies.

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