Color this debate puzzling


I JUST WENT into McDonald's for a chicken fajita. Honest. I mean, God knows what's in them, but sometimes you just get a craving for such things.

And there -- in McDonald's -- were Albert Pagliuca and Ed Cowan, talking 'bout things. Their cheeks grizzled, their lips and fingertips discolored from years of inhaling brand name carcinogens.

On the table in front of them, stained with coffee and blotches of ketchup, was the front section of the Boston Globe. Al and Ed were delicately discussing affirmative action as discussed by Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, as discussed in the pages of the newspaper I work for.

"Disadvantaged whites, that's what we are," chuckled Al. "It's about time somebody got around to noticing us." A vein danced in his neck. "Remember that story about that colored boy got those low scores and still got into college? I bet he took a place away from a smart white person who really deserved it, somebody who worked really hard. That's why he was grinning the way he was, because he knows that's the case and that there's nothing nobody can do about it."

Ed, he of the quieter bellow, nodded, grunted and gulped a greasy mouthful. I sat down at the table next to them, squirted watery packaged salsa onto my lunch and expressed mild interest in the newspaper, which they seemed to be done with. They eyed me warily before pushing it toward me.

"That's an old paper," Al grumbled. "I've been carrying it around. Showing it to people."

"I'm not saying that they're all unqualified," he added, more for my benefit than Ed's. "But sometimes it's just unfair, that's all."

It sure is. I knew that the issue of affirmative action was a burning match, but I had no idea how many folks were on fire. The black face riding atop my column has identified me as a sort of affirmative action baby, someone readers are forced to listen to because the world has gone so gosh-darn crazy with this diversity nonsense. To many folks, my smug countenance in the newspaper represents an affront to American values.

Witness a recent ranting missive, written in the sloped cursive of the truly irate: "I was born in 1949. I never in my life owned any slaves. Don't blame me for your problems." During an appearance on New England Cable News, a caller challenged me to define racism. "Every time I say anything critical to you people, it's racism. And you've got all the jobs." This from Peabody: "How sad it must be going through life seeing everything through the prism of skin color." (That wasn't entirely my choice, Sherlock.) A man barked into my voice mailbox: "I didn't like what you said about Jim Kelly. And guess what? You only got your job because you're a minority!"

Oooohhhh . . . I guess that was supposed to sting, and for a millisecond it did. Then I realized that he was probably right, that the higher-ups at the Globe just may have surmised that an African-American female would garner favor with a certain target audience, or maybe -- as a co-worker so bluntly observed -- I'm just the "flavor of the month" around here. (Gee -- chocolate again?)

I don't know how many times in my life I've filled a quota; I may be filling one now. But the move to abolish affirmative action -- or to force its arms open wide enough to embrace disadvantaged whites -- has me baffled. If I stand side-by-side with the new breed of underdog, how can we both require help cracking the mainstream when I wear my advantage on the outside? We may both knock on the same door, seeking entrance and opportunity, but if my black face and his white one are both visible through the peephole, guess who gets past the welcome mat?

There is -- surprise, surprise -- a privilege inherent in skin color. Most white people have a way to go to prove that they're not clean, educated, dependable, credible and credit-worthy. When judging those of darker hue, negative assumptions are often automatic. (Ever been asked for five picture IDs to cash a $25 check?)

Perhaps I'm not clear on the plight of the disadvantaged white, my new companion on society's bottom rung. Al, explain it to me, will ya?

"Just last month, I talked to a guy about a welding job. He said I was too old, even though I know I'm good at it. Been doing it for 22 years. They said, 'Sir, we're looking for somebody a little younger!' Now, is that fair?"

I don't get it. Al got through the door. He was called "sir." He was able to state his case before the interviewer found room for excuses. Now imagine wearing those excuses, like skin.

Patricia Smith is a Boston Globe columnist.

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