BY AMOS JONES
NEW YORK CITY, FEBRUARY 26, 2006 – Over the past several weeks, I have attended and watched funeral services for civil rights leaders whose examples have inspired me for years. Two were my paternal uncles in their seventies, men who defiantly attacked racial discrimination in their native Kentucky and in New York City with intellect and sophistication, and who simultaneously excelled in their professions. The other two were Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, whose distinguished records require no introduction. These deaths serve as notification that we are witnessing the sunset of an era.
The conflict into which these individuals were born was stark, the necessary moral response clear. Jim Crow segregation and a general racism permeated every aspect of American life until at least the late 1960s. All blacks were victimized by the official order of those days, and all whites were the beneficiaries, including outsiders who were contemplating immigration. No wonder voluntary African immigration to America was virtually nonexistent until the 1970s. It is also no coincidence that the Montgomery bus boycott facilitated by Parks and King and the A&P Supermarket boycott facilitated by my uncles in New York City received nearly universal endorsement from the black community. Nor is it surprising that numerous white people immediately joined the struggle for right. A number of them are on our faculty here at Harvard Law School, and I encourage readers of this column to persuade them to share their stories from yesteryear.
Today is different. In most parts of the country, blacks no longer have to fight for employment the way we used to. We no longer have to demand that people on the Harvard Law Review not walk out after we are elected to the editorship. We no longer have to shame Harvard into hiring black professors or placing a black person among the President and Fellows of Harvard College, known as the Harvard Corporation.
Thanks to the direct action deployed during the 1950s and 1960s, blacks of my generation can now occupy the proverbial seat at the table. In many cases, blacks occupy several seats at the table. Yet, recent developments indicate that the racial fight is not over: We now find ourselves in an age in which blacks are forced to demand the respect we are entitled to, the same respect whites always receive.
Harvard itself provides striking examples.
Professor Derrick Bell, the first black tenured law professor here, effectively resigned in protest after the school failed for years to tenure a woman of color. He now teaches at New York University and appears to have no interest in returning to HLS as a tenured professor.
Dr. Cornel West was so insulted by University President Lawrence Summers in 2002 that he resigned from his coveted University Professorship to take a post at Princeton University. Princeton. Summers had attacked West’s latest scholarship and attempted to critique work by West that he had not even read. As West noted on his way out, Summers obviously had been hanging out with the wrong crowd and had exposed himself as “a bull in a China shop.” After West spoke out, The Harvard Crimson trashed West for criticizing Summers. Summers later said he regretted the development.
Most recently, Conrad Harper (HLS ’65) resigned from his post as the first black member of the Harvard Corporation after he was ignored at Harvard’s highest level. In the July 14, 2005, letter notifying Summers that he had abruptly resigned, Harper charged that the Corporation had not followed proper procedures in pre-empting Harper’s planned discussion of Summers’s salary at a retreat to have occurred a few days later; one of the other Corporation members decided to give Summers a 3 percent raise for 2005-06 in spite of the planned course of deliberation. Harper communicated quite clearly to Summers, writing: “I cannot in good conscience remain a member of the Corporation when the procedures that should guide deliberations are not followed. … Matters came to a head for me over whether the Corporation should raise your salary for 2005-06. In my judgment, your 2004-05 conduct, implicating, as it does, profound issues of temperament and judgment, merits no increase whatsoever. … I believe that Harvard’s best interests require your resignation.”
Besides the theme of blacks’ being disrespected by whites what these stories have in common is that they appear to have helped raise awareness of and effected positive changes of blacks’ collective circumstance. Harvard Law School now is home to an array of talented and liberated black professors, including a woman, all of whom are outstanding in every way. Summers recently announced his resignation for reasons partially related to the racial strife he facilitated and will be replaced temporarily by one of his predecessors, the famously fair Derek Bok, who also has served as dean of the Law School. And the Harvard Corporation replaced Harper with a black woman known for standing tall and getting results. Patricia King, a specialist on biomedical law and ethics at the Georgetown University Law Center, is the first black woman to serve on the Corporation.
But for the defiance of individual blacks willing to place principle above a pat on the shoulder from white people, these developments beneficial to our entire institution probably would not have occurred so quickly. I honor them for standing up.
Historical precedents, everyday battles
These stories remind us of an essential component of racial progress. As anybody familiar with American history should know, blacks as a group have obtained nothing without courageous individuals fighting for us. The people who have sacrificed the most have been black, but all kinds of people have helped. We would do well to follow their examples today. For us as law students, that means demanding the treatment to which blacks are entitled whenever we encounter disrespect.
Consider, for example, what happened to me last week as I was boarding my flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Boston’s Logan. Rather than following my weekend-in-New-York custom of attending Abyssinian Baptist Church’s wonderful 11 a.m. service and returning to Cambridge on the 4 p.m. U.S. Airways Shuttle, I paid a small change fee to get the noon flight. I needed to be back in time for my first rehearsal of the semester with the Dudley House Orchestra (which is preparing a marvelous program of Berlioz, Dvorak, and Shostakovich – and I encourage you to attend the concert in Sanders Theatre on May 7 because it will be good).
One of the benefits of flying 50,000 miles on this carrier and its affiliates in one calendar year is that the resulting Gold Preferred status entitles Dividend Miles members to priority boarding without exception and can entitle us to upgrades into First Class in many circumstances. Consequently, I almost always fly first class on U.S. Airways’s domestic flights. I have had positive experiences innumerable on U.S. Airways, so much so that I paid a few dollars more to book on their shuttle even though Delta’s cost less.
On this return trip, I learned at the ticket counter that there was room for me in First, and my newly changed ticket showed an upgrade. My seat assignment was 3F. When I arrived at the gate, I got lucky again, finding a seat in the waiting area that was right in front of the gate agent’s counter.
What happened after that was troubling.
When the agent made her call for pre-boarding, inviting passengers needing assistance and persons traveling with children ages two and under to the gate, I stood up, walked roughly ten feet toward the gate, and stopped short of the gate. I stopped because my priority group and row had not yet been called and a couple with a double stroller and two young children were approaching. The agent and the family happened to be white.
The agent, who also was white, remained on the microphone, and I looked patiently at the family. The family was moving very slowly, but I waited
for them because I am polite and nice, and because I prefer to avoid confrontations. The family stopped, and the father waited with them about ten feet away from the ticket-acceptance station in front of the door to the jetway, not lining up. I stood and observed the family. The agent made the initial boarding assignment through her microphone, then she invited passengers “seated in rows one through fifteen” to board.
That was me, and I started the line.
The agent, still calling out instructions through her microphone, motioned for me to move out of the line I was heading. Compliant, I stepped two feet back, winding up directly in front of her counter and wondering why she had directed me to move. Apparently the father, who like me had an agreeable disposition, was wondering the same thing. As the agent continued to call out instructions, the father told me, “That’s OK. Go ahead.” He never attempted to assume my spot at the front of the line.
“Thank you,” I replied. I was again at the front of the line, and the white family was behind me. The agent then put the microphone down so that she could begin accepting tickets. Facing me standing in line, the agent then told me to move out of the way.
“I was here first, this man acknowledged that and told me to go ahead, and those children are older than two years anyway. I’m entitled to be served,” I said. The gate agent shot back: “You’ll all get to board, so just be patient.”
And with that, she went around me, took four tickets from the white mother, and served the rest of the white family, who then disappeared down the jetway. I then handed her my ticket, she accepted, I thanked her, and I headed down the jetway behind the white family, who were still moving quite slowly. Three of the four white family members remained planeside fooling with the stroller. The father entered the aircraft, where he was seated in 1D. The rest of his family eventually took their seats in coach.
As I was placing my carryon baggage above 3F, the father removed his jacket, revealing a Harvard Club of Boston sweatshirt, and told me that he regretted the way the agent had acted. He said that he figured she was having a bad day, and he complained about the manner in which she had taken his family’s tickets. He was nice.
I told him: “As you would recall, I had deferred to your family anyway, as a courtesy. There was no reason for her not to have accepted my ticket. She just didn’t want me to be the first person on the plane. That’s what that was about.”
I then took my window seat and telephoned the friend with whom I had been chatting while I awaited the boarding call. He happened to be a black man who was once deported from the United Kingdom after attempting to re-enter the country following a break from his British graduate program. He had made the mistake of crossing a white person with power and was promptly returned to America.
As I recounted to him what had just happened to me, it became clear that the treatment was marked by the defining elements of a scenario all too familiar to those of us who have spent our lives living as blacks in America. The agent’s actions and subsequent dismissiveness from two people above her embodied what I call the white-functionary-versus-uppity-Negro phenomenon. This is the dynamic that shows up in case after case involving black plaintiffs who challenge white people in American jurisprudence.
I do not accept such treatment. People have fought and died for me to be treated like everybody else, and I, in the spirit of Charles Hamilton Houston, have decided that I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees. I buzzed the flight attendant.
“Madame,” I said, “will you please get for me the name of the gate agent? I am filing a complaint because she denied me the service to which I was entitled when she passed over me in the boarding process.” The attendant eventually complied, directing the pilot to telephone the appropriate officials.
The plane was to depart at noon. At 11:50 a.m., the flight attendant returned and invited me to step off the plane to meet the supervisor of the agent just outside the door. I thanked her, picked up my bottle of water, and stepped off the plane to introduce myself to the supervisor of the gate agent. She was standing there with the gate agent.
After I told the supervisor, “Good morning, my name is Amos Jones,” she told me that she understood that I had complained about the boarding and told me that after speaking with the gate agent, she could assure me that the gate agent acted properly in serving the family first, since the two children were standing in front of me.
“At no point were those two children ever standing in front of me – until your gate agent ordered the family in front of me at the gate. To imply that I attempted to bully my way around children is slanderous, and you can verify the facts with the father of the children, who complained about the agent’s conduct and is now seated just inside this door in 1D.”
The supervisor made excuses for the agent, saying that it was a full flight and that there was a lot going on.
“Part of what was going on was the standard practice of forming a line,” I said. “Why is it unusual to take people in line who are properly there first?”
The supervisor became flustered and then declared that there had been a misunderstanding. I told her that there was no misunderstanding – that her worker had intentionally denied me service twice in favor of other people, and that as a supervisor she ought to find out why. I then turned to the agent to address her directly: “Why did you lie about the location of those children?” She did not answer. At that point she moved toward the plane door to close it. I turned to her supervisor and said: “Nobody has yet provided me with this woman’s name, and I want it now, because I’m reporting up.”
The supervisor provided the agent’s first name. I told the supervisor that she had failed in her investigation and that I am left to wonder whether the reason that the agent served a family that at first was not in line and next wound up behind me in line was that I was black and they were white. The supervisor, who was white, said that she doubted that was the reason. As I walked back through the door, I questioned the supervisor’s integrity, told the agent holding the door that she was going to be reported and exposed, and returned to my seat.
The door closed, and we took off on time.
Back in Boston, I called the Gold Preferred service line and complained. The next day, Passenger Service Manager Lou Macedo called me from his office at LaGuardia. He pledged to interview the two women and to call me back on Wednesday. He was apologetic that I had been told to be patient.
On Wednesday, he called me back. He appeared to be unbothered by the fact that the account he was given in the intervening period was inconsistent with the agent’s earlier account. He had now been told that the agent already had taken the tickets of the family and that that was why she placed them ahead of me. I told him that that was not true, that I watched as those tickets were handed to her by the mother after the agent had directed the family ahead of me, and that all he had to do was to ask the witnesses, the first of which was the man in 1D who had complained to me about how the agent had taken his family. I wanted to know: Why was Lou not investigating this case as a cover-up? He then adopted the language of his manager, describing the scenario as “a misunderstanding.”
Although Lou apparently thought the case would be closed, I told Lou that the three U.S. Airways officials’ conclusions were mystifying and unacceptable. I then told Lou that I wondered whether I was being mistreated on racial grounds. After verifying his Italian-American status, hoping to appeal to his historical sensibilities, I informed him of the longstanding practice in America of placing whites ahead of blacks on c
ommon carriers. It was important for Lou to be made even more aware of the fact that while whites with little or nothing to offer were welcomed as immigrants to America from faraway places throughout most of the twentieth century, blacks had been systematically forced to defer to all white people throughout American history. In the face of the inexcusable treatment I received as I boarded Flight 2126 on that Sunday, I had a right to wonder whether he and his staff were continuing insensitively in that tradition.
I am reporting up.
But I am doing another thing, too. In the name of truth and justice, I am inviting all readers with stories of similar treatment to e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can investigate whether and to what extent this kind of treatment is part of a pattern and practice. I will keep your e-mail messages confidential unless you request otherwise.
This weekend scores of nationally known black lawyers and judges will be flying into Logan to attend the Harvard Black Law Students Association’s annual Spring Conference. I will pay close attention to any reports of ill treatment that come from these distinguished members of the bar. If you are flying from New York or wish to offer feedback directly to U.S. Airways, you may direct your comments simultaneously to Lou Macedo at (718) 533-2488, whom I have advised to expect this article.
No excuses, please
Some readers will question quite defensively why I wonder whether what is happening to me is racial. These are the people who, when pressed, show that they actually think there is no more racism in America. Ask them to identify instances of racial discrimination against blacks that they know and they fall silent. Try it.
As for the white supervisor who said she doubted it was racial, her response was quite predictable. What else was she going to say? When was the last time a white organization voluntarily admitted racial discrimination without being forced to do so through litigation or a boycott, regardless of how obvious the disparate treatment embodied in and the disparate impact effected by their actions?
I know what substantiates such claims. As Justice Clarence Thomas held in a 2004, 5-4 employment-discrimination decision that placed him with the left, in today’s world circumstantial evidence is often the only evidence of white racism. If juries are waiting to find out that a white supervisor told a black employee that he was being mistreated because of his race or was called a racial slur, they will be waiting forever.
Today, discrimination against blacks is hidden because it is finally illegal. Sadly, federal and state courts, which are white-dominated, routinely ignore that opinion and continue to side with white employers in dismissing at the summary judgment phase practically every discrimination lawsuit brought by blacks, denying jury trials and encouraging white racism’s persistence.
Since the American legal system is packed with judges who are conflicted in that they benefit materially from racism against blacks, I would advise blacks who are victims of discrimination at work to employ direct action and other alternative methods that are not subject to the judgment of the same kinds of people who discriminated against them in the first place.
Finally, I would remind white and black fence sitters that it is never too late for you to enter the struggle. In particular, I encourage whites who have witnessed disparate treatment or benefited from it, like the family ahead of me on Flight 2126 last week, to refuse such treatment at our expense, or if it is out of your control, to come forward after the fact. You do not have to function as a pawn within the insidious system of white supremacy that erases black dignity and withholds freedom from America’s most afflicted citizens. We need you to stand against injustice. The woeful wall of white solidarity will not tumble without a press for righteousness from your considerable positions of privilege and influence.
Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at email@example.com.