Integrity Breeds Dissent

My grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes, is one of my heroes. She is also very sick now. Much later than I should have, I started audiotaping some of the stories that make up her life. One of them is the tale of how she challenged employment discrimination on her job, the price she paid, and the gains she won.

My grandmother only went to work -- and started taking college classes -- after the youngest of her six children was in school. She began working at the Social Security Administration as a GS-2, an entry-level employee. In her words:

"I went to work with a determination to get promoted as soon as possible. One of the things that hurt so much was the fact that there was a black man who had reached a grade four. At that time, a grade four was great for a black person. When he found out I had put in for GS-5, he said, 'You know you're wasting your time -- a black middle-aged woman trying to get a job of that nature.' When I retired, he was still a GS-4, and I was a GS-11," she said.

"When I applied for a promotion, the white girl got the promotion. They told me she was more qualified. I had a high school degree and had gotten A+ on college classes. She had to get a GED in a hurry so [she could qualify for the job]. One of the reasons that she got it was because I had refused to accept [my supervisors'] attitude about a group of young black women who were eligible for promotion who were being bypassed."

My grandmother insisted that the black employees be evaluated fairly, by the same measures as white ones. They did well on every test, but management was not pleased. "They called me into the office, and they said, `This could mean your future.' I said, it would just have to mean it," my grandmother said.

She didn't receive a promotion for four years. "I just kept plodding along. Eventually I wrote to the commissioner and I told him what I'd done. They nominated me for the commissioner's citation. As soon as I got nominated for the commissioner's citation, I got nominated for a Grade 11. It was only after I received that citation -- the highest citation that Social Security can give -- that I got promoted to a job you could really say you took a look a lot of effort with."

My grandmother is an extraordinary woman not only for her integrity, but for her deep compassion. She mentored and befriended white employees as well as black. She also remained loyal in the truest sense to the institution she served -- by bringing them kicking and screaming into the era of the integrated workplace.

In a small-minded world, loyalty and integrity are enemies. Conservative proponents of the New Patriotism call anyone who dissents with the Bush Administration a traitor. This leaves no room for the very American principle of dissent, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of ideas that undergirds all social progress. The expression of the ideals in the Declaration of Independence only became meaningful with dissent -- dissent against slavery, against the inability of women to vote, against legalized employment discrimination. Without dissent there is no democracy.

Who dissents? In every case of major social change, people of integrity made a very hard decision. They chose to stand up for principles that at the time were illegal and/or considered immoral. I met a gentleman named "Skip" Barner who, in the 1950s, promoted black employees and treated the black woman who worked for his family like a human being. When she stayed late, he would drive her home. When she ate lunch, she sat at the table with his wife. This so outraged the local Ku Klux Klan that they threatened his wife. Skip Barner took a gamble that leaving documents about the threats in a safe deposit box, should anything happen, would keep them safe.

That takes integrity.

It's easier to look at examples of integrity from the past than from the present. But one current example stands out for me -- the whistleblowers at Enron. Greed and a misplaced sense of loyalty -- to a corrupt corporation -- kept many top officials from telling the truth. But Sherron Watkins blew the whistle on the phony accounting. She didn't save the company, or its reputation. But she can be assured, in addition to sleeping better at night, that her obituary will not tout her as someone who squandered billions and put thousands of people out of work.

Loyalty and integrity are not enemies. When we place loyalty to the power structure of an institution or government above loyalty to its people, we undercut the ideals we claim to serve.

Integrity is one of the most important, and most threatened, of American values. Of course, "values" is a fighting word, particularly to progressives and liberals who have seen morality used as a weapon. But values can be-- and for many of us have been -- a healing balm that soothes the injustice of everyday life. One of the challenges of our experiment in American democracy is how to express values in public life. We can learn a lot from those who have had to make hard decisions before us.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

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