MAXWELL:  Affirmative action: It feels good

3/17/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


So, Ward Connerly, California’s infamous hypocrite, has decided to bring his divisive anti-affirmative action initiative to Florida. Connerly is the wealthy black businessman and Board of Regents member who successfully led similar efforts in California and Washington state.

His campaign goads black Floridians because Connerly made his first million bucks by taking advantage of the very set-asides that he wants to eliminate here. The real irony is that Connerly was invited to Florida by white members of the state chapter of the Associated General Contractors, a group that spent decades _ until affirmative action was implemented _ rigging bids and engaging in other shenanigans that kept black contractors from obtaining government contracts.

Correspondence to the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, along with those of other state newspapers, is always a good barometer of issues of most concern to Floridians. The fact is that the Times and the state’s other major papers rarely hear from readers who see affirmative action as a problem. Even during our last gubernatorial campaign, it rarely came up because the state is not besieged with quotas, set-asides or college admission policies that have allowed blacks to overrun our professional colleges.

But here is my main point: White people, and with them the likes of Connerly, tell the lie that blacks who benefit from affirmative feel bad about themselves, so bad that they lapse into a sense of inferiority for having received so-called special treatment. I am still looking for this mythic legion of wretched affirmative action babies.

I benefited from affirmative action several times, the first coming in 1972, when, as a senior at Bethune-Cookman College, I was admitted to the University of Chicago’s graduate school to study English language and literature. Mine was a program that accepted Southern blacks attending historically black colleges who had average scores on the SAT or the ACT, but who had good grades and strong letters of recommendation from their professors. Chicago, a private school, did not use the Graduate Record Exam because officials did not believe that it was the best predictor of success in grad school.

Trust me when I tell you that I did not _ and do not _ feel bad about being at Chicago. In fact, I felt great. I was already a voracious reader when I arrived at the university, but, on that campus, I thrived and was rarely without a book in my hand. I lived in Regenstein Library, prowled bookstores, joined study groups, haunted my professors’ offices, drank in bars where smart students talked about their course work and attended plays and museums.

I was a shameless sponge. I knew that my being on the campus of one of the world’s greatest universities was an honor. I felt privileged and was determined not to let down those who had given me a chance to join the intellectual elite.

I was one of only three blacks in the English department. We relished our good fortune and never lost an opportunity to encourage one another. And we needed a lot of encouraging, especially when we had to read 100 texts _ novels, plays and poems _ for our master’s degree finals. Sure, we knew that some white students thought that we did not belong at Chicago, but we did not let such attitudes distract us.

One of my 18th-century literature professors often challenged me in class by asking questions whose answers required close readings of the text. One day, he asked me a particularly tough question about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. After that, I never gave him another chance to embarrass me. Not only did I read the texts closely, but I also read every secondary source I could find. My answers, sharp and nuanced, reflected my growing familiarity with the field.

The next quarter, when I took the same professor in another course, I did not wait to be quizzed in class. I joined the discussion voluntarily.

I, an affirmative action baby from a South Florida ghetto, did so well that I was one of 30 students accepted into the doctoral program. One of the other black students also was admitted.

If Chicago had embraced a mentality like Connerly’s, I probably would have had to settle for a second-rate graduate program. Later, I attended the University of Florida’s graduate school of journalism through an affirmative action program that accepted me on the condition that I pass the GRE before graduation.

Again, I worked my butt off to become worthy of attending a great university. And, by the way, all of my professors say that they are proud of me.