MAXWELL: Moral responsibility in matters of race

4/13/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Here we go again: affirmative action, this time involving the University of Michigan. And this time, even the president of the United States _ himself not any teacher’s brightest star _ weighed in against using race as a factor in college admissions.

What gets me is that so many white people who benefit from being white want to ignore race _ our rawest nerve and the most enduring, corrosive force in American social life. Everything about race still matters. Nothing else marks the individual or the group so immediately, so thoroughly, so permanently.

I must repeat one point: White people benefit from being white because being white is inherently an advantage in a society controlled in every way by whites.

Let me share a real-life experience: A white friend of mine is an attorney who was born wealthy. While a high school senior, he came home one day and complained that two of the approximately 10 black students on the prestigious campus planned to use affirmative action to get into the University of Florida Law School.

My friend still remembers his father’s words, which went something to this effect: “Don’t ever say anything like that in my presence again. No matter how many black kids get into law school through affirmative action, you, a white person, will always have every advantage.”

That one lesson stayed with him. His firm works hard to find African-American summer interns and attorneys fresh out of law school. His firm annually logs an exemplary record of pro bono work for the poor. He understands the U.S. Constitution as well as the next person. And he understands something else: As a white person with every advantage, he has certain moral responsibilities, one of which is to use no small amount of common sense in matters of race.

Affirmative action is what good people do instinctively. I first saw real affirmative action in 1963, as a freshman at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, when Negro students could not set foot on most white campuses in the South without trouble.

For the first time, I had white teachers. My French, history, political science and math professors were white. Three of them were young Woodrow Wilson Fellows who could have taught almost anywhere they wanted but who chose our tiny historically black college.

I asked Edward Carns, my history professor, why he had come to this intellectual outpost. Having been born and reared in Baltimore and having seen the ill effects of black poverty up close, he felt duty-bound to help Southern Negroes, he said. Because Negroes could not attend tax-supported white schools, white professors of good conscience had a moral obligation to travel to Negro schools and teach for a few years at least. Carns taught at two other historically black colleges before marrying and moving on to the Ivy League. His service to us was affirmative action. My schoolmates and I are eternally grateful.

Years later, after I left the military and attended historically black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, I had other young white professors who understood how America had cheated us and who comprehended their moral duty to reach out to us. They understood affirmative action in its purest sense: doing what is morally right to redress past wrongs.

When I became a professor,I followed the example of my white professors. My resume looks like aKerouacian itinerary. During my first eight years as a professor, I worked at four different schools _ Kennedy-King College in Chicago; Northern Illinois University in DeKalb; the University of Illinois-Chicago; Governor’s State University in Park Forest South, Ill.

On each campus, half of my courses were in the English department, the other half in the remediation program intended to help black students admitted under affirmative action. I wanted to work at places where I could be of use, where I could help black students learn skills and gain knowledge they had been denied in high school.

As an itinerant, I was practicing affirmative action, just as my white professors had taught me to do. Today, we need such affirmative action more than ever, an affirmative action of the heart and of good conscience.

In the upper reaches of the government, good will toward minorities has been replaced by the mean-spirited conservatism of Republican ideologues. Fortunately, though, many people of conscience remain. Fortune 500 companies and leaders of the military academies and services, for example, have written briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan.