Back during my graduate school days, one of my friends kept obsessing about the likelihood that we, as minority students, had gotten in because of affirmative action.
We were journalism students at Columbia University after all, home of the Pulitzer Prizes. Surely, she insisted, others more qualified than us got passed over.
My response to her: That’s all beyond our control. Just don’t waste this opportunity.
I thought of her as I read Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s controversial remarks about how African-American students might be better served by attending “slower-track” universities where they’d face less academic pressure.
Debating lawyers in a University of Texas affirmative action lawsuit, he said briefs in the case “pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas ... They come from schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Bull, meet china shop.
Even if he was simply playing devil’s advocate, as his defenders suggest, didn’t he realize how appalling it would be for such racially inflammatory statements to fall from the lips of a Supreme Court justice? As Democratic Sen. Harry Reid said, Scalia gave voice to ideas that are “racist in application, if not intent.”
My race likely helped me get into 1980s-era Columbia. So, whose spot did I take? Well, who took my mother’s spot when blacks couldn’t study at South Carolina’s big universities in the late 1950s?
What about my grandfather? He was as shrewd and as ambitious an entrepreneur as I’ve ever met, yet South Carolina’s “public” schools wouldn’t teach him to read. Who took his spot in the 1930s-era business schools?
Who took his father’s opportunity? Or his grandfather’s?
This isn’t just about race-based payback. It’s about acknowledging that a strong candidate might sometimes be the minority candidate, and that we might miss him or her with all our racial baggage blocking the view. This fact seems lost on the Scalias of the world.
I didn’t struggle at Columbia. Like millions of other first-generation college graduates, all I needed was a chance.
Everybody has a chance now, critics will say. “Your people” are just lazy. We don’t need affirmative action anymore.
Consider this: A University of Michigan researcher created 1,000 fake job applicants, all with similar grade point averages, and applied to jobs online. He gave the DaQuans, Ebonys and Shanices elite or Ivy League degrees. He created white-sounding Calebs, Charlies and Aubreys with lesser degrees.
And what happened? The white candidates drew the same response rate as the better-qualified black candidates.
Says a lot about the persistence of the race factor, if you ask me.
I’ll welcome the day when affirmative action is no longer needed.
But that day has not arrived.
Eric: 704-358-5145; firstname.lastname@example.org