"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
By Rev. Karla J. Cooper
There is a question that is as old as humankind itself. This question was even explored by our earliest bipedal ancestors through the first generation of Adam and Eve, pondered intentionally when Cain wondered if he was his brother Abel’s keeper. This is a question that not even the most astute academician could even engage in an objective intellectual discourse without conjuring up emotions, empathy and passions. It is a question that the most boisterous biblical scholar or theoretical theologian could not even constrict to words nor confine to common experience.
Are you ready for the question? This question that has traveled through millennia, around continents, between the valleys, atop the mountains, plagued the rich and the poor, traipsed with the young and the old, foisted itself on females and males, enticed ethnicities, crossed cultures - and still not one has the answer to the question: What does it mean to be human?
Perhaps as we explore the similarities that make us human, we can realize that all we need are the basics, as so eloquently articulated through the first cry of the breath of life from a vulnerable newborn who bellows out for the attentive affirmative action that is cradled in love, aided by food, providing protection and acknowledging the simplest of human need. What does it mean to be human?
If we examined this attentive affirmative action that is a result of our first human expression, it would certainly be inhumane to deny or discriminate against the infant’s need. The vulnerability and humility of having to cry for help, if ignored, would be detrimental to the development of this infant; thus attentive affirmative action must happen.
What would happen if we ignored and did nothing for the least among humans? There is a danger in doing nothing. There is a danger in ignoring what it means to be human. There is great danger in ignoring the attentive affirmative action toward those who may be born into a racial identity, who live within a class of disparity, who are sexually orientated queerly - who must be acknowledged as being fully human with all rights and privileges of those who have lived as privileged humans. In Nebraska, it is unfathomable to think that the human condition can be ignored and that affirmative action is not necessary. As long as there are those who are born into a race, gender, class or disability that allow them to be disadvantaged in opportunities for success, then attentive affirmative action must be a reality, a necessity.
When I first moved to Lincoln from St. Louis by way of the Missouri Bootheel and a month in India fasting and praying for a new direction, I not only thought God had a great sense of humor for having my presiding bishop assign me to Quinn Chapel, but I also had lots of assumptions. My assumptions, as many assumptions are, were absolutely wrong. I was pleasantly surprised to see the multiplicity of cultural richness that stretched beyond shades of Euro and black Americans, but included an array of ethnicities from around the world. Some have even sought Lincoln as a place of refuge and strength - a safe haven. This is a place where the “good life” can be a reality, as all live with the liberty and pursuit of happiness that makes these United States an exemplary model for addressing the question “what does it mean to be human.” I often refer to Lincoln as the land flowing with milk and honey.
Perhaps this is why Mr. Ward Connerly, a national figure against affirmative action, has selected Nebraska as one of the states to coerce, to convince and confuse the genuine concern that so many have for loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Lincoln, as well as many other places in Nebraska, is progressive. As an outsider who is part of the protective class designation that would benefit from attentive affirmation action living in Nebraska, I have experienced directly the essence of living the good life, with all its benefits. I can’t imagine Nebraska even considering closing the door on opportunities for those who are like me when hospitality has been so warmly expressed to me as a Nebraska newcomer.
As a member of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights (LCHR), I see firsthand each month the subtle instances of discriminatory practices that would go unaddressed were it not for a vehicle like the LCHR. Each month we explore the question what does it take to be human as we make sure that the human condition is met without bias, discrimination, unfair housing and employment practices, or any possibility of retaliation because of reporting.
I beg, even plead, that we not allow Mr. Connerly, or others with a limited mind-set and heart for the human condition, to intentionally thwart the kingdom of serving the least among so many who have been living beyond privilege. Is it so wrong to allow blessings to flow through intentional attentive affirmative action, action that certainly gives aid and answer to the question “what does it mean to be human”?
Let’s come together and live the question as we meet the human condition. At any point in our life’s journey, we may need a hand out and a help up, so let’s continue the proactive stance. Let’s keep affirmative action, equity and justice, a part of what makes the good life in Nebraska worth claiming.
I have to conclude with another question that will give support to the necessity for affirmative action. What does the Lord require, but to do justly, to love mercifully and to walk humbly with God? Let us not forget that affirmative action was instituted to provide a level playing field for persons who have been unjustly held back and given limited opportunities to live out the American values of liberty and justice for all.