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  Web Editor:
  Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
Web Editor
Race and Health Care
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Legal Education
The JD Project
a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 1, #24, January, 1996



I watched a discouraging program on C-SPAN the other day. Roy Wilkins, a prominent black law professor, was talking with a group of the best and the brightest high school seniors. And the white guys were totally hung up on the issue of affirmative action. No matter where the conversation was taken by the other participants, they kept dragging it back to "reverse discrimination." Why, they insisted, should anything other than "merit" be taken into account when the goodies of life are being divvied up? THEY had never owned slaves; THEY had never persecuted anybody; so why should they be pushed aside to give special privileges to blacks and Hispanics and Indians?


Wilkins was patient with them. He explained to them that society has never in history operated solely on the basis of merit. People get into exclusive colleges, for instance, because their parents are alums, or because their parents are donors, or because they have extraordinary musical talent or because they shoot hoops well or because they come from Nebraska (schools like Harvard aim for geographic diversity).


He told them that he was an affirmative action beneficiary before there was affirmative action, that the University of Michigan law school felt an obligation to educate future leaders of the black community. Wilkins did not have a splendid academic record as an undergraduate, because he spent his time as a big man on campus, becoming president of the student body in the early 1950's, despite being black. Clearly he had great potential, and he was admitted. But once he was there, he had to do the work or flunk out. Just as clearly, his career bore out their faith in him.


And he told them that, as a professor, he not only believed, he KNEW that the differing life experiences and viewpoints in the classroom were as important in the educational experience as the lectures and books, that people saw different ways of looking at problems, and different kinds of solutions than they would have if they associated only with people exactly like them.


And the white guys didn't hear a word he said. They said that, if his academic record wasn't that good, then some person with a better record was not allowed in, in order to make room for Wilkins, and wasn't that a bad thing?


The girls and the blacks and Hispanics were very patient, explaining to them how their experiences helped them contribute unique viewpoints to the academic dialogue.


And the white guys said, why should anything but merit be considered?


It did make me think of John Ciardi's poem, "The Shark"--

with his two bright eyes and his one dark thought (he has only one, but he thinks it a lot.)


They were like four year olds being told, politely but firmly, that they had to share their toys. And as far as they were concerned, the government might be big enough and strong enough to force them to share, but nobody was big enough to make them agree that it was a good idea.


Or that the toys weren't necessarily theirs by right.


There were other frustrating things about this conversation.


One was that nobody there except Wilkins had any sense of history. What these young men failed to understand is they did not need to have been slaveowners or Klan members to have nonetheless benefited from the systematic exploitation of blacks and Latinos and Chinese laborers and Indians. Throughout American history, the Germans, the Irish, the Poles, the Czechs, and so on, have advanced from despised immigrant status through honorable working class to striving middle class by asserting their common whiteness (a legally beneficial condition). Once they made some money and got some education, they were indistinguishable from any other white American. And they intermarried freely. Not for nothing is our most quintessential American name something like Kevin Shapiro, or Kristin DiAngelo.


Not surprisingly, white men got into the habit of thinking that the good things in life went to white men because they earned them; they somehow failed to notice that other people were not invited to apply. They missed the fact that job ads that were listed as jobs for women and jobs for men, or even jobs for whites and jobs for blacks. And somehow didn't see a fairly startling salary gap between these sets of ads. As Jim Hightower said about George Bush, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."


Naturally, then, when blacks and Hispanics and women were allowed to compete for "their" jobs, white guys were upset; the rules had been changed on them. And so men became very testy about the issue of "merit"-- "unqualified" people were taking their jobs. (They apparently managed to erase from their minds all memory of unqualified stupid white guys they worked with.)


And how did they know these people were unqualified? Because of tests. Testing, of course, measures skills white men happen to be very good at, spatial reasoning and verbal logic. So it was clear to these young men that merit was, in fact, an objective, measurable reality, that our tests in fact provide an excellent measure of merit, and that everything that counts about a person is measured in these tests..


This is nonsense.


Firefighters take tests for promotion. And there are certainly objective facts that one would want all firefighters to know. But firefighting requires other qualities that no test could ever measure--bravery, leadership, split-second decisionmaking. No city government in its right mind would hire a fire chief who got the best test scores but who dithered when decisions had to be made.


And if a police force is made up of white guys commuting in from the suburbs to arrest black kids in the ghetto, it isn't a police force at all. It's an army of occupation. Don't think the black kids don't understand that.


And if you're trying to market your products to Hispanics, and none of your white marketing whiz kids speak Spanish or realize that Cuban culture is different from Mexican culture or Puerto Rican culture, your product won't make it.


And if you're trying to market a product to women, and the guys in marketing think women's chief goal is to please a man ("My wife. I think I'll keep her.") or have a sparkling bathroom, you're not going to sell that product to me, I assure you. Or to very many other women, either.


White men understand their own "merit." What they don't see is their own limitations as people. We are ALL limited as people, because we see and understand only what our cultural experiences allow us to see. We don't even know what our gut-level assumptions about how the world works are, until we run into people who do not share those assumptions. White men seem so caught up in their own grievances, in the unfairnesses to them, that they can't see unfairnesses to anyone else. And they can't think about what is good for society as a whole.


Because if they insist that white men should forever keep on getting all the good stuff, and no blacks (Hispanics, women) need apply, what we have is a caste system. And social dynamite.


Social stability comes with a large middle class that believes in the American dream--if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make a good life, and a better life for your children. If that belief goes, if large numbers of people begin to believe that they're living in a stacked deck, that's when you'd better start getting ready for the revolution.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to Marylaine Block

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