Five Minutes With
Mary Frances Berry
Lawyer and historian, civil rights activist and radio executive, Mary Frances Berry has had a long and varied career. Currently a professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania, Berry achieved fame and notoriety as President Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and as a long-time member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (and its chairwoman under President Bill Clinton). She served a term as chairwoman of the board at Pacifica Radio and is the author of eight books, most recently My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Campus Progress caught up with Prof. Berry by phone to ask her about her areas of expertise in civil rights, radio, and the nexus between the two.
Campus Progress: To a lot of young people, civil rights seems like an issue that happened in the past rather than something that’s very much still a contentious issue today. Do you have any thoughts on what the most pressing civil rights issues are today and how they can be made relevant for young people?
MFB: I think probably the most pressing issue is trying to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to a quality education. That’s the most pressing civil rights issue of all. What that involves is making sure that at the K-12 level every child has the opportunity to learn. We have things like No Child Left Behind, which is being reauthorized. [NCLB] has the goal of making sure that everybody is able to learn, but it doesn’t have the resources and it doesn’t have enough support of teachers. It has an overemphasis on testing people to make sure that we can tell what they don’t know rather than figuring out how to make them know what they should know. And we have all kinds of proposals for different types of K-12 schools alongside the public schools, but we really haven’t done all the things that the experts say we need to do to make sure that kids, especially when they come from homes where they don’t get the kind of support that they need with their homework, or the kind of environment in which they can learn or whatever happens in their daily lives. So we haven’t figured out quite how to make sure that everyone has a quality education.
And disproportionately, children of color—whether they are Latino or African American, and poor white students also—are the ones who are being left behind despite the fact that we say we don’t want them being left behind. We have high drop-out rates: Latinos higher than Blacks, Blacks very high, so these are problems. In higher education we also have an equal opportunity issue because we still don’t have enough African Americans and Latinos who are getting college degrees who are staying in school and are retained in higher education. And these issues are important not just for people who are interested in civil rights. It is a major civil rights issue, but it’s important to everyone because I think everyone agrees that you can’t have a productive economy in terms of the nation’s future and our place in the world if we don’t educate the students that we do have.
Affirmative action lost in Michigan this past year. How can progressives support affirmative action in a way that is likely to make it more popular and more likely to win at the polls? Do you have ideas about how it should be framed and do you also have thoughts on how the policies themselves should be changed?
The first thing to understand is that the conservatives and the right undertook an assault on affirmative action that has gone on since it first started in the 1960s and has never ended. Of the public relations to date, when they succeeded in characterizing affirmative action as preferential treatment for unqualified or less qualified people, they succeeded. I wouldn’t even argue that they didn’t succeed, they did! And it was easy to do because affirmative action in a zero-sum game—especially in higher education where someone else is admitted and someone else isn’t admitted. In elite institutions it’s easy for people to want the seats to argue that other people shouldn’t have them. It’s not that it was that hard to do, but they were very smart and very crafty in framing the issue as reverse discrimination—preferential treatment, something for somebody who doesn’t merit it, taking something away from other people—and they won that rhetorical battle. And since they won the rhetorical battle, they won the policy battle.
There’s nothing wrong in concept with affirmative action as the idea that you make up for discrimination that has taken place by reaching out to people. And in some cases where you have equal qualified people taking the people with less. We’re able to do it when it comes to women, inclusion of women in opportunities, and the Supreme Court has even upheld that without any difficulty. It’s on the race question that we have fallen short. I think that what we need to do is to re-label affirmative action as something else. Maybe call it banana something, orange, or something like that and then start over again with trying to explain to people what it is that we’re trying to do.
One idea is to base the whole thing on class, which I don’t have any objection to. I’ve always supported affirmative action based on class, although I don’t think we should call it affirmative action. I think we should call it banana based on class or orange based on class, whatever. Because we have an increased emphasis on higher education in all the Ivies—Penn, Harvard, all the rest—I’m trying to make sure that we have kids that are from poor families.
How can radio stations diversify their audiences?
Make sure that you have voices on the air that come from different communities of color who can talk about those communities and who are rooted in it, so that when other people hear them they feel some empathy and that person is somehow, you know, in their space. And they may want to listen to what they have to say and what their views are. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done; NPR is trying, but they need to do more of that. The community radio stations especially should have the goal of doing that and I think it’s very important.
One of the big media issues this year has been the controversy surrounding Don Imus. Do you think broadcasters saying racist things on the air is a problem?
The CATO Institute asked me a couple of years ago to come and debate some guy about conflicts between free speech and employers hiring who they wanted to hire and having them say what they wanted. They assumed I was going to take the side against free speech and so I told them I didn’t want to come because they didn’t understand that when it comes to the First Amendment I’m a purist. And I didn’t go.
I was very conflicted about the Imus thing. I was asked to come on several television shows to discuss it and I didn’t go because they assumed that I was going to come and attack Imus. I thought that what Imus said was awful. I think what a lot of people say is awful. But I think that if they want to say it and the radio and the television do not have to give them a forum to let them say it. And there is a lot of worse stuff on the Internet, though freely disseminated without anybody interfering with it or stopping it, and some of the stuff is pretty bad. I think that I don’t believe in prior restraint in terms of messages because people think what they think whether you can try to keep them from saying that. And there are a lot of people who agree with them so you might as well get it out there and talk about it. There has to be an opportunity for other people to say things and respond in many different messages.
But I also think something else that the kind of language that he was using and the whole hip-hop thing now and the rap music issue has been raised too. I think C. Dolores Tucker was right when she was alive, of course she’s dead now, when she was trying to lead the campaign to get the rap musicians to clean up their lyrics. So I think that rap music ought to clean up its act. Eighty percent of the people that listen to it are white and not Black. And some get their only idea of what they should be like, or what Black people are really like, or what’s really cool by doing that. So I don’t like some of the messages, but I think it’s more threatening to have a guy like Trent Lott who said that statement about Strom Thurmond. That he wished we had an America back like when Strom Thurmond should have been president or something, and have him be the whip in the Senate now, that’s really some powerful messages.