When the Supreme Court struck down the Benjamin Banneker scholarship at the University of Maryland at College Park in May, it sided with a lower-court ruling that racism on campus -- if it reflects racism in society at large -- is not cause for redress by the university.
The decision to scuttle the scholarship for promising black students raises questions that epitomize the nation's daunting confusion over affirmative action: Are we as a society obligated to make up for centuries of slavery and racism? Is the University of Maryland, or any public institution, the place to do it? Will the court decision prevent any effective remedy for racial bias on campus? Is racial inequality history, or is it still a daily fact of life?
The Banneker's symbolic power has been recognized since its inception in 1978. Maryland courts had said has early as 1951 that the school must admit blacks and the Supreme Court formally ended school segregation in 1954. Yet College Park remained a segregated campus until 1970, when the states were ordered to increase "other-race" enrollments at historically segregated campuses.
Recruitment efforts markedly increased the university's black student body. The Banneker attracted outstanding black students from in and out of state. These students, in turn, made College Park a more palatable place for black students in general. Though the number of African-Americans on campus increased, it never reflected the population of Maryland, where one-fourth of residents are black.
In 1988, College Park administrators expanded Banneker and created the Francis Scott Key scholarship (open to all qualified students) as part of the university's new flagship status. Both scholarships offered full financial support for four years. At the time, Professor Raymond Johnson, chairman of the Banneker selection committee, insisted that the Banneker scholarship remain a separate entity with a less-demanding set of requirements, including lower SAT scores. He believed that cultural bias built into standardized tests would render black students ineligible for the highly competitive Key.
As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the Banneker will merge with the Key scholarship program this year, and university officials say uniform standards for acceptance will hold true for all students. The Banneker will dissolve into a general effort to lure gifted students. Its symbolic role as a good-faith effort to reverse decades of racism is dead.
But as other affirmative action programs undergo scrutiny in coming months and the country sorts out its complex feelings on the issue, it is instructive to listen to the voices of two Banneker scholars -- one on each side of the debate.
When the Benjamin Banneker scholarship was scotched, Robyn James' conviction was sadly upheld: Racism, however narrowly or broadly defined, is flourishing in the United States.
Nothing new, thought Ms. James, a dermatologist in Washington. As a Banneker scholar from 1982 through 1986, she was routinely reminded of racial bias on campus by the white women on her varsity field hockey team. They addressed her with fake jive, calling her "Mama," and asking if she could dance. In moments like those, Dr. James knew that discrimination was not history, but something she was living.
When her teammates taunted her, Dr. James would respond with an Ivy League football chant: "That's all right, that's OK, you're going to work for us someday."
In retrospect, maybe she was wrong, Dr. James says with a weary sigh. Maybe the Supreme Court's rejection of the Banneker is proof after all that she, a black woman, remains at the mercy of a racist society. "Maybe I really am working for them, because it's a white man's world," she says.
Dr. James came to Maryland from Rochester, N.Y. Without the handsome scholarship offer, she would have attended a state school in New York. The Banneker allowed her to live for the first time in a racially diverse part of the country. As she studied and socialized with other blacks, as she witnessed the local toll of poverty in the African-American community, Dr. James' mind opened to the beauty and pain of black life in America. Her identity as a woman of color blossomed.
And she realized that in Rochester, she had been quite naive. While attending a virtually all-white high school, "I didn't feel like I was different or like I was discriminated against." In hindsight, Dr. James knew she was. When she was never asked out on a date. When her high school guidance counselor recommended that she become a secretary, even though she had sailed through advanced placement physics and math courses. When she returned home one summer and couldn't get a waitressing job, despite plenty of posted openings.
And though the Banneker was the University of Maryland's way of atoning for past racial discrimination, it was also its own cross to bear. "I felt like [people thought], 'She's just here because she's black.' It's just something you have to fight and swallow. I knew I was good."
Opponents to affirmative action may argue that being stigmatized as a beneficiary of affirmative action is yet another form of racism. But it is not reason to abolish the program, Dr. James says. "Unfortunately, you have to resort to having set-asides. If you leave it up to good faith, it won't happen."
Dr. James was asked to give the graduation speech in 1986, the same year basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose. To a certain extent, she believed she was being used by the #i university. Her story was an inspiring counterpoint to the Bias tragedy. It was a way of demonstrating that good news happened to blacks on campus, too. She was, in effect, a "token" trotted out by a nervous administration.
But giving the speech was also an opportunity for Dr. James to affirm her obligation to live up to the Banneker charge. Serving those less fortunate. Giving back to society. It was her classmates' obligation as well, she told them in a moving oration.
After medical training, Dr. James and a colleague established a private practice with three offices in Washington and Maryland. Most of their patients have limited incomes, and about 40 percent are Medicaid recipients. Dr. James sees about 50 patients a day. There are "bright kids, mothers who are overwhelmed, very young mothers, two and three kids," she says. "You just know the odds are against them."
Dr. James is reimbursed $20 for each Medicaid visit, a pittance compared to what other doctors receive from private insurance companies. But she believes it is her responsibility to serve these patients, even if she has to work five times as hard to make a living. Like all doctors, she abides by the Hippocratic oath, but she provides "special care for all my patients of color."
If she didn't practice in Southeast Washington, she asks, who would? Without the Banneker and similar programs, the pool of doctors willing to care for the disadvantaged will shrink even more, Dr. James says. "If you don't train us to put us in these positions, who is going to take care of us?"
Her despair escapes in bursts of words: "I don't think things are much different today than they were in 1986. . . . The whole political climate is why the scholarship went under fire. . . . It's like affirmative action is a four-letter word."
Beyond the campus, there are roadblocks everywhere you turn, Dr. James says. Being turned down for home loans, jobs: These are routine events in the lives of blacks, Dr. James says. "Look at the statistics, the state of black America put out by the Urban League. Blacks make half as much as white people do." And yet, and yet, she says, "you have to keep trying to convince people that racism exists."
It is not a one-way street: "We have to become economically empowered. We have to start doing stuff for ourselves. We have to own things," she says. But for anyone to assume, "If you want to, you can make it, it's naive."
And yes, she understands, affirmative action can hurt people. Deserving white people. But weigh the fate of one white person who gets shut out of a scholarship or government contract against the experience of an entire, disenfranchised race. "You gotta go for the bulk," Dr. James says.
She is considering establishing her own academic scholarship for black students. Nothing big, but a start, something that will accrue in value over the years.
"For the Benjamin Banneker scholarship they gave me, I think they have gotten their money's worth, one hundred-fold," Dr. James says. "And I'm just beginning."
Irksome 'inner message'
Chris Sleet Mergerson accepted a Banneker scholarship because he wasn't aware of the Francis Scott Key scholarship, which is not race-specific. "I was never offered a choice," he says.
But that doesn't mean that Mr. Mergerson, a sophomore this September, approves of the program that is putting him through college.
It irks him that as a Banneker scholar, he is held to a lower grade-point standard than Key recipients. (A Key scholar is required to maintain a 3.2 average, while Banneker scholars were required to maintain a 3.0 average.) "It's an inner message [from the University of Maryland] in a way, that, 'We're going to help you out with school. . . . You're good enough to be here, but not good enough to perform on the Key level,' " Mr. Mergerson says.
"I'm still pleased I got a full scholarship," says Mr. Mergerson, a history major. "The Banneker is solid, except that it's race-based and has lower standards. . . . The thing is, life isn't perfect. I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was the best opportunity out there for me at the time."
Mr. Mergerson's world view was formulated in part by his upbringing in a middle-class Northern Virginia community where his mother, ahomemaker, and father, a mathematical statistician for the federal government, still live. "I think one of the best experiences is growing up in a predominantly mixed neighborhood" where Afghanis, Saudis, African-Americans live side by side.
Pluralism has taught Mr. Mergerson a thing or two about progress: "As far as society goes over all, we've got so many races, so many different ethnicities. The way you're ever going to unify us, is by policies that bring us together."
Everyone, at some time in their life has been "beaten down," and "everybody deserves equal help," he says. "My deal is: Cut excuses to a minimum. If you stew about it, you spend more time wondering how to get back at people then getting ahead," he says. "There are different kids of all races who are poor. The majority of people on welfare are white."
Unless a scholarship or any other set-aside is "need based, and one based on merit," rather than race, it is "just hypocrisy," he says. "I'm just thinking about it in terms of fairness," Mr. Mergerson says. "I'm one of those naive people who believe we can work toward a colorblind society. We don't have one now obviously. We may never have one. That doesn't mean you stop looking for it."
Mr. Mergerson, 19, is an emphatic conservative. He emulates Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, another critic of affirmative action, and has pinned his hopes on presidential candidate Bob Dole. After graduation, he would like to be an aide in a Republican congressional office.
But Mr. Mergerson doesn't buy into the pre-election polemics over affirmative action. "I don't see it as an issue of conservative vs. liberal," he says. Affirmative action should not be a campaign issue, he says. "Some Republicans are a little bit too gung-ho" on the topic, he says. "Politicizing makes it divisive."
As a campaign issue, affirmative action can only make it harder on black conservatives, he says. "It kind of hurts to see it be made into a political issue, [it engenders the] image of a white person beating down blacks."
This coming school year, Mr. Mergerson will be commentary page editor for The Black Explosion, the campus' African-American newspaper. "There are a lot of black conservatives on the University of Maryland campus and I'm going to find them," he says confidently.
Mr. Mergerson is also active in student government and belongs to an integrated fraternity. "I hope through what I do, I set an example that people should get together and interact, no matter what race they are. And when there are problems we all face, we should try to solve them in the spirit of cooperation, not in the spirit of hypocrisy and discrimination," he says. "You can't end discrimination with discrimination."