The New Haven firefighters' case just decided by the Supreme Court has raised the issue of affirmative action again. Which got me to thinking about how certain people assume that if you're a person of color, you must be where you are because of how you look.
I have talked with black students who are, by, turn, outraged and hurt by comments from their non-black peers that the space they occupy truly belongs to a white person who deserved to be there more. With black managers who are told they must have gotten their promotion because of their hue, not despite it. (These are often the same people who have gotten where they are because of insider connections or special mentoring because "they remind me of the son/daughter I never had."
Back in the day, our parents told us we had to be 10 times better, work 10 times harder than "those folks" in order to just get anywhere near a level playing field. Things have changed somewhat—but not that much. Over 30 years ago, on my way to college, I went to a barbeque where the host asked where I was going to school. I told him and he froze. "My daughter wanted to go there, but she didn't get in," he said with fake heartiness, "but that was back when you had to be soooo smart to go there."
Flash-forward to last year. A student at an elite prep school here in Los Angeles told me a fellow student—an alleged friend—blithely told him he was sure all the school's black students had been admitted because they were black, not because they were promising or because they were smart.
"Do you believe that?" I asked. "No, but what do you say to people when they say things like that to you?" he asked.
I told him I'd say now what I said 30 years ago: " 'black' and 'smart' are not mutually exclusive."
And then I just look at them hard and let the silence build.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and coauthor, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).