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An affirmative action forum in Pittsfield is taking place during a week of civil rights remembrance nationally.
“He said ‘I’d expect that from a nigger, but not from a boy like you.”
Those words were uttered by a middle-aged white man to Stewart Burns, a 14 year-old white boy in Chicago in 1963. A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Burns went on to become a historian, author, and professor studying civil rights and affirmative action. He also wrote a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently the Assistant Director of the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College. Burns will be giving a lecture on affirmative action in Pittsfield City Hall Tuesday afternoon. The city’s Director of Administrative Services Mary McGinnis says it’s a kickoff event to start the city’s goal of revamping its affirmative action policies.
“Fifty years from then, have we improved? McGinnis asked. "I think we have because it’s acceptance with many people of difference, not just one race. However, we have a long way to go.”
After two weeks of recruiting, McGinnis says the city is almost done forming the committee, which includes representatives from minority and specialized groups within the community. Its goal will be to update the lengthy and outdated affirmative action policy from 1993 containing goals such as hiring Vietnam Veterans. The committee will act independently and assist the city’s departments to insure equal opportunity employment. According to its 2010 census, Pittsfield’s population is 88 percent white, five percent African American and five percent Hispanic, while 52 percent of residents are female. While Burns says he cannot speak specifically to Pittsfield, he says in general minorities are unemployed because of a lack of opportunity.
“They simply will not find out about these jobs, so they won’t even be considered because they won’t even know about them," Burns said. "Often there are very insidious forms of discrimination. A lot of it is very subtle and it’s not as blatant as it used to be.”
Burns says affirmative action gets a bad name because of highly publicized instances involving minority candidates who may receive a job or admission to a university over more-qualified non-minorities. Some states, like New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Arizona, have banned admission to a university or hiring to a government position based on race or gender.
“Unqualified and significantly less qualified African Americans or peoples of color or women will get hired for positions because there are quotas or there are pressures of various kinds to hire anyone who happens to be African American," he said. "There are cases where that’s happened, but in my historical judgment they are the exception.”
An affirmative action activist, Burns admits there needs to be a policy change so more than just the middle class benefits from equal employment standards.
“The malignant kinship of race and class, you can’t really separate race and class into separate categories," he said. "I do think there needs to be reform of affirmative action. What needs to happen is for the socio-economic issues to be combined with the racial issues.”
Burns hopes national celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week and a recent commemoration of the death of W.E.B Du Bois in Great Barrington will bring added attention to civil rights. The forum starts with Burn’s lecture at 4 o’clock followed by a question and answer session at City Hall Tuesday.