The black scholar and cultural critic Albert Murray, from his 1971 book South To A Very Old Place:
Item: To the statistician a token is something you can write off as being insignificant because it is not big enough. But when you are talking about revolutionary change, tokens and rituals are often more important than huge quantities. The old numbers game is a jolly good hustle for appropriations-oriented social workers, but Southern reactionaries are much more likely to fight about tokens than about numbers as such. Look at the fit pitched by all kinds of noncollege white people when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes first entered the University of Georgia. But how big an uproar was and is there about the actual number of Negroes now employed in good-paying jobs at Atlanta Airport? Have any white reactionaries ever taken the trouble to count them? When you desegregate a school or a neighborhood, how many of those white people who flee would stay on upon being assured that incoming Negroes absolutely would not exceed a fixed quota no matter how small? Maybe reactionaries operate on a more profound understanding of or intuition about the functional interrelationship of tokenism and inventive than those ever so compassionate white liberals who are forever insisting that all black people must be equal with each other. It is probably all too obvious to the reactionary that expanding the horizons of aspiration has as much to do with liberation as anything else. In any case when the reactionary says, “Let one in and before long there will be a whole slew of them”; and says, “Give one of them an inch and they’ll take a mile”; he seems to know very well that expanding the horizons of aspiration is precisely what is at issue. He wants even the smallest black schoolchildren to feel that they will never make it to the top. And yet your compassion-oriented white liberal on the other hand seems entirely unaware of the possibility that when he writes off outstanding Negroes (especially those who move in circles higher than his own!) as tokens he could well be creating an effect on young people’s horizons of aspiration that may be even more restrictive than segregation. After all, brutal exclusion often inspires determination, whereas the downgrading of achievement could easily lead to exasperation and cynicism. If all outstanding black men are only token dispensations whose intrinsic merits count for nothing, why should any Negro pupil be anything except a con man?
Murray, who died this summer at the age of 97, wrote that over 40 years ago. How have times changed? How have they stayed the same? Discuss.