Back to the not so good old days


I'VE ALWAYS thought affirmative action made a lot of sense. It's obvious to me that discrimination against black people and women has been so prolonged and thorough going that something needed to be done about it. But I know that not everyone shares my views.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote about the Reagan administration's assault on affirmative action. What strikes me now is that the arguments haven't changed. Here's a version of what I wrote then.

One evening many years ago, I attended a lecture, and I arrived early and was doing what I did often that fall. I worked at polishing my dissertation. I sat with pencil and typescript, scratching out awkward phrases and trying out new ones.

Next to me sat a white man of about 35, whose absorption in my work increased steadily. "Is that your dissertation?" he said. I said yes, it was.

"Good luck in getting it accepted," he said. I said that it had already been accepted, thank you.

Still friendly, he wished me luck in finding a job. I appreciated his concern, but I already had a job. Where? I told him I was a beginning assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Aren't you lucky," said the man, a little less generously, "you got a job at a good university."

I agreed. Jobs in history were, and still are, hard to find. While cognizant of the job squeeze, I never questioned the justice of my position. I had worked hard as a graduate student and had written a decent dissertation. I knew foreign languages, had traveled widely and had taught and published. I thought I had been hired because I was a promising young historian.

"I have a doctorate in history," he resumed, "but I couldn't get an academic job." With regret he added that he worked in school administration. I said I was sorry he hadn't been able to find the job he wanted. "It must be great to be black and female, because of affirmative action," he said. "You count twice." I am what some white people call a "twofer."

This was the first time I'd met it face to face, and I was embarrassed. Did this man really mean to imply that I had my job at his expense? The edge of competition in his voice made me squirm.

He said that he had received his doctorate from Temple, and yet he had no teaching job. He asked me where my degree was from. "Harvard," I said.

I waited a moment for his answer, which did not come, so I returned to my chapter.

Later, when I lived in North Carolina, I ran into a similar situation while having lunch with some black Carolina undergraduates. One young woman surprised me by deploring affirmative action.

"White students and professors think we only got into the University of North Carolina because we're black," she complained, "and they don't believe we're truly qualified."

She said that she knew that she was qualified and fully deserved to be at Carolina. It was the stigma of affirmative action that bothered her; without it other students wouldn't assume she was unqualified.

That was more than a decade ago, and we are still talking about the merits of affirmative action. Both whites and blacks are asking, "who benefits from affirmative action?"

Well, I have. But not in the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate in a large state university. Back then, there was no affirmative action.

Yet we all knew what the rest of the university thought of us, professors especially. They thought we were stupid because we were black.

Admitting that you have been helped by affirmative action is usually tantamount to admitting deficiency. To hear people talk, affirmative action exists only to employ and promote the otherwise unqualified, but I don't see it that way at all. I'm black and female, yet I was hired by two history departments that had no black members before the late '60s, never mind females. Affirmative action cleared the way.

Thirty-five years ago, John Hope Franklin -- then a star student, now a giant in the field of American history -- received a doctorate in history from Harvard. He went to teach in a black college. In those days, black men taught in black colleges. White women taught in white women's colleges. Black women taught in black women's colleges. None taught at the University of Pennsylvania or the University of North Carolina. It was the way things were.

Since then, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement have created a new climate that permitted affirmative action, which, in turn, opened areas previously reserved for white men. Skirts and dark skins appeared in new settings in the 1970s, but in significant numbers only after affirmative action mandated the changes and made them thinkable. Without affirmative action, it never would have occurred to any large, white research university to consider me for professional employment, despite my qualifications.

My Philadelphia white man and my Carolina black woman would be surprised to discover the convergence of their views. I wish I could take them back to the early '60s and let them see that they're reciting the same old white-male-superiority line, fixed up to fit conditions that include a policy called affirmative action. Actually, I will not have to take those people back in time at all, since the Republican assault on affirmative action fuses the future and the past.

If opponents of affirmative action achieve their stated goals, we will have the same old discrimination, unneedful of new clothes.

Nell Irvin Painter teaches history at Princeton University and is completing a biography of Sojourner Truth.

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