Affirming Educational Opportunity

In 1965, I—a descendant of enslaved persons—was the first in my family to graduate from college with a four-year degree. One can see this as a significant advancement over the course of several generations and/or see with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why [after 100 years] We Can’t Wait” to be able to exercise our full rights and take advantage of the opportunities afforded in this “land of plenty.”

It was around the time that I graduated from a state university that the policy of Affirmative Action began to gain traction in regard to hiring in federal jobs and awarding federal contracts to minority-owned businesses. Following the federal government’s lead in mandating hiring without regard to race, colleges and universities began the practice of acting affirmatively to increase the number of Black students admitted. This proactive behavior on the part of higher education, particularly among elite colleges and universities, began trending in the late 1960s.

The backlash against Affirmative Action in college admissions was swift and endures today. After 30 years of a national controversy, the California Board of Regents voted in 1995 to no longer consider race and gender in hiring and admissions decisions. This decision was the impetus for opponents of Affirmative Action in college admissions to increase the pressure to abolish the practice across the country.

In the meantime, Black students and professors were singled out as part of the problem and became victims of White backlash. For those who have not walked in these shoes down this same path, Ron Susskind gives a stunning biographical portrait of what student life was like for some “Affirmative Action” students. He records the following conversation overheard by Cedric, a Black student on one of his first days at an Ivy League university:

Cedric, settling at a table inside [the café], orders a ginger ale and trains his ears to a table immediately to his right. Two professors, both white, are leaning in…. ‘Are we doing a service to young people to boost them above their academic level and then not offer the services they need? Asks the squat one with flying gray hair. ‘Because who really can? Who can offer that sort of enrichment? You can hardly blame the university. It would take years, and money, and a whole different educational track to bring some affirmative action students to a level where they could compete. There’s no choice but laissez-faire, sink or swim. They should be going to middle-rung universities. There’s no right, as far as I can see, to go to an Ivy League institution. If they work hard, their kids can come here. Hell, it’s what everyone else had to do.’…

It’s all Cedric can do not to respond…. He imagines telling them about his long journey, that his struggle has built in him a kind of strength—a conviction about his ability to overcome obstacles—that other kids don’t have.  But of course, that strength is hard to measure, and lately he’s become uncertain if it will be enough to get him where he needs to be….

The professors, meanwhile, have moved on to the companion controversy about hiring minority faculty members. ‘It’s a mockery,’ said the other professor, a tall distinguished-looking guy, spits, ticking off the names of a few minority professors around campus. ‘A lot of them are good teachers, sure.  But they’re unpublished, not respected, not scholars. What do they bring? Their passion, oh-so personal ‘perspective.’ Nothing special about that. Jesus, everyone’s got one of those.’…

Throughout the day, the overheard conversations at lunch echo in Cedric’s head. More than specifics, he recalls the intensity of the dialogues. At this point, affirmative action is the last thing he wants to hear or think about…. So, he got in. If he fails, he fails; if he makes it, he makes it. Why does everyone have to draw conclusions about an entire race from that, or take sides. He wanted a chance, he got one (A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, 191-193).

Unlike our ancestors who were given a hoe and forced to chop cotton, Cedric, myself, and many other Black students and Black professors were given a ladder of opportunity through higher education. The ladder, however, was covered with grease. It was slippery, and we were on the bottom rung.

Affirmative Action, to some extent and in some places, replaced the slippery ladder with real steps upon which new-to-college Black students could begin, but there were no handrails, and the steps were narrow and winding. There was no recognition and subsequent adjustment for the fact that preparation for college was often inadequate and the psychological toll of being “the only one” was more than just distracting. This combination of obstacles knocked many aspiring Black students off the steps.

Now, after 50 years of Affirmative Action being a “thing,” it is still being challenged with the subtext that indigenous and other disenfranchised students are not deserving, don’t belong, and are receiving an unfair advantage. The upside is that during these many years, some colleges and universities have realized that students who are the first in their family to attend college need not only steps but steps with handrails for support.

Progress is slow. One step forward and two steps backward is the norm. Hopefully, it will not take another 100 years for descendants of Black enslaved persons to realize true equal opportunity, full civil rights, and nondiscrimination in admissions to colleges and universities.

2 responses to “Affirming Educational Opportunity

  1. Caryn McTighe Musil

    Thank you for your powerful personal account paired with Cedric’s later but still painful experience decades later as a first generation African American in college. The metaphor of the greasy steps on the ladder with no handrails will be etched in my mind forever, even after someone or a movement or a changed consciousness by white people creates an escalator instead of a slippery unstable ladder that lifts aspiring students toward all they can and want and will become.

  2. Caryn, thank you for your encouragement and for your insightful addition of the escalator to the metaphor.

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