MAXWELL:  The path to a level playing field

12/17/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Today’s column is essentially the commencement address I delivered Monday night to the mostly white graduates of the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. When Dean H. William Heller asked me to speak, I decided to talk about racism, the most morally destructive problem facing our nation:

What I say tonight may sound negative to some of you. But I do not mean to be negative. I simply want to offer some advice that may help you help society rid itself of racism. Look around tonight. How many black people do you see? Not many. But if you were to believe the politicians, you would think that blacks are overrunning your campus because of affirmative action. That is not the case.

Let me tell you a sad story: White students in a program in Martin County that uses white and black dolls to teach ninth-graders about the difficulties of parenthood told their teachers that their parents would “kill” them if they brought home a black baby.

Since August, students have spent weekends tethered by the wrist to unruly, 10-pound dolls that fret unpredictably, for as long as 35 minutes.

One white student said that she would not be allowed inside her house with a black doll. Mind you, black students in the program have no problem bringing home white dolls. Black dolls are always left behind because the white students will not take them.

If this kind of racism is so prevalent in Martin County, one of Florida’s most progressive areas, what do you think is happening elsewhere in the state? I will tell you: Racism, as subtle as it is sometimes, is smothering our sense of justice.

One obvious question, of course, is this: What can I, one person, do to cure an illness that has infected the nation since the moment the first English colonists encountered the Indians?

You can do a hell of a lot.

First, you can acknowledge, without apology or guilt, that your forebears _ including some of your dear parents here tonight _ have not done all they could to eradicate racism. In fact, many of them have tacitly encouraged and benefited from this evil.

You can help create a real level playing field in race relations, not the phony landscape, the politically charged minefield that Sen. Orrin Hatch and others of his ilk speak of. Some of your grandparents and parents have talked about the level playing field while giving a blind eye, say, to the banker who will not lend to blacks.

Or you may have a friend who works at a department store that has been accused of harassing would-be black shoppers. Perhaps you may know a cop who routinely uses the word “nigger.” When that cop encounters a black male, what do you think the outcome will be?

What can you do? Here are some examples of what you can do:

If you become a lawyer, devote yourself to properly prosecuting all civil rights violations that you encounter.

If you become a Realtor, do not discriminate against people because of their skin color. Refuse to engage in redlining.

If you become a teacher, give all of your students your best effort. Make all of them learn. Treat all of them fairly.

If you become a banker, take a risk on the minority who deserves a break. Take a chance on the start-up black company that has a good business plan but no credit history.

If you become a college admissions officer, do all you can within the law to assist black applicants.

If you become a pastor, invite African-Americans to join your congregation. Many may not join. But invite them anyway.

If you become a cop, treat black people the way you would like to be treated if you were stopped.

Sometimes I believe that I am the only person in America who realizes that zero is a number, that zero is as much of a quota as the number 13. If, for example, a company has a policy of not hiring blacks or promoting blacks, it is using a quota _ the number zero. This is affirmative action in reverse. We need to start worrying about anti-affirmative action as much as we worry about affirmative action.

How many whites worry, for example, about “legacies,” universities’ practice of automatically admitting the children of wealthy alumni? This is affirmative action in its strictest sense. How many parents here tonight got your job because a relative or a friend made a telephone call? Is this not affirmative action? Absolutely _ white folks style.

I ask you all to leave here tonight resolved to do what you can, as individuals, to create a real level playing field in America, to help remove the obstacles that made affirmative action necessary to begin with.