by Anjuan Simmons
Most of you probably associate me with technology. After all, I work as an information technology consultant, and a lot of the content that I post to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, my blog, and other online social networks is about technology. However, I also write and speak about minority advocacy issues, and, with Black History Month coming to an end this week, I thought I would discuss a topic about minorities that has gotten a lot of attention in the past week: affirmative action.
Before I continue, I want to warn you that I will discuss this already difficult topic in a very candid manner. I will also discuss how my views on affirmative action are tied to my personal experience with being called the "N-Word", but I will write out the full word because, well, it was always fully spoken or written out against me. If you don't like frank discussions about race or don't like reading the n-word spelled out, then I advise you to stop reading now. Actually, I assume that most of the people who would be offended have already stopped reading and have moved on to some other less challenging part of the internet.
An affirmative action case is heading to the United States Supreme Court based a lawsuit filed by a white female who was denied admission to the law school of The University of Texas at Austin. The white female, named Abigail Fisher, claims that less qualified minoirity applicants were admitted based on their race, and she was denied because she's white. For those of you who were, like me, students at UT in 1996, this lawsuit is nearly identical to what would become known as the Hopwood Decision. In that case, Cheryl Hopwood, also a white female, was denied admission to UT's law school, and she believed this was done due to preferencial treatment given to Black and Latino applicants. While the Supreme Court declined to hear Hopwood's case, the Fifth Circuit did rule in Hopwood's favor and race could no longer be used as a factor for admissions, recruitment, and retention programs in states under the jurisdiction of the court. This included UT, LSU, Texas A&M, and many other colleges and universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
I enrolled at UT in 1993 as a recipient of the Texas Academic Honors Award (TAHA), an academic scholarship that was part of UT's overall affirmative action program. This scholarship was designed to attract qualified Blacks and Latinos who could thrive despite the rigorous academic environment at UT. Many people think that affirmative action programs are designed to take things away from white people and give them to underserving minorities. They think of affirmative action programs as vehicles for denying white high school students on the honor roll admission to universities like UT while failing black students making C's and D's are admitted to the school.
However, the TAHA was designed to reward academically excellent minorities with high grades, high scores on standardized tests like the SAT, and demonstrated leadership ability both inside and outside their schools. I know this because I had to demonstrate these qualities when I applied for the scholarship. Fortunately, I was in the top 10 percent of my high school senior class. Actually, I was in the top 10 (I believe I was the 5th best student in my graduating class). I also had an excellent SAT score. It wasn't Dwayne Wayne's perfect score on the math portion of the SAT, but it was a great score (and higher than Abigail Fisher's SAT score of 1180). So, I, like other recipients of the TAHA, represented minorities who excelled in high school but may have lacked the financial resources that academically strong white students usually could access, primarily as beneficeries of institutional racism. Despite having other academic scholarships, I definitely benefitted from the $5,000 per year the TAHA provided me during my four years as an electrical engineering student at UT.
The Hopwood Decision, which was rendered in March 1996, ended the TAHA scholarship and the other affirmative action programs at UT. I would retain my scholarship benefits until I graduated in 1997, but minorities who had planned to enroll at UT in the fall semester of 1996 would not have access to affirmative action assistance of any kind. Despite the fact that I would be one of the last students to receive the full benefits of the TAHA, I joined in the many protests against the Hopwood Decision that took place on the campus of UT. This included marches, and I also wrote two letters about the need for affirmative action to the Firing Line of the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper. I reprinted them on my blog, and you can find them here and here.
Some of you may be thinking, "Anjuan, you and other minorities didn't really need affirmative action programs back in 1993, right? And, surely, they aren't needed now? We've come a long way. Times have changed, right?"
No, times have not changed. Allow me to share an example. A story that wasn't covered much last week concerned a baseball coach who was suspended last Monday for something he posted on his Facebook page. This coach, a white man named John Kelly, made a Facebook post that included this sentence:
I'm so sick of reading about this dumb stupid Nigger Whitney Houston.
When his post was reposted by mother of a former player, it came to the attention of the board of the youth baseball league John Kelly worked for, and he was suspended from his position as president and banned from coaching for a year. However, I was fascinated by this statement from John Kelly regarding his use the word nigger in his Facebook post:
I didn't even realize I put it in until after I sent it.
So, what does that mean? Does that mean that he subconsciously used an extremely hurtful and racist pejorative? John Kelly also stated this:
I do stand behind everything I said except the 'n'-word.
So, he stands behind calling a recently deceased person "dumb" and "stupid"? Like many white people caught using the word nigger, John Kelly also claimed that he is not a racist. He even said this:
I have some amazing friends who are black.
This to me is the key to why affirmative action is needed. Most racists don't know that they are racists. They think that because they don't have police dogs attack blacks or spray them with fire hoses like federal and state governent law enforcement officials did in the 1950's and 1960's, they can't be racists. However, the truth is that racists have black friends; and refer to them as niggers when they don't think they will get caught.
Let me be clear. I don't think that all white people are racists. I don't even think that most white people are racists. In fact, I have a great deal of love for many of my white friends and have, in return, been shown a lot of love by them. However, I know that there are enough white people with racist mentalities who can, perhaps even subconsciously, hinder the progress of minorities who just want a chance to pursue their dreams. It was just at the end of last year that Countrywide, one of the largest providers of home loans, was found by the Department of Justice to have, in 200,000 cases, charged higher interest rates and fees to Blacks and Latinos than whites with similar credit ratings. Racism has transformed from Jim Crow to people like John Kelly. It's not overt racism that we have to fight. We have to fight against mental beliefs that many white people with power have about the inherent inferiority of minorities. These beliefs often only come to light from actions like an unwitting Facebook post or a federal investigation.
I personally experienced this "mental racism" a year after the Hopwood Decision. It was May 1997, and I was a resident assistant in one of the campus dorms at UT. I was excited about my upcoming graduation and looked forward to starting my career at Andersen Consulting after I received my degree.
One day I returned to my dorm room to find a piece of paper pinned to my dorm room door. I turned the paper over to a UT police officer after reading it several times so I don't have a copy. However, I won't ever forget what was written on it. The top of the paper said this:
What's a nigger like you trying to get an electrical engineering degree? Shouldn't you be out robbing people?
Beneath these words were crude drawings of three figures. The figure on the left was a male looking to the right. Above the figure on the left were the words "You". The figure in the middle was a female bending over with her face down and her legs straight. Above this figure were written the words "Your Girlfriend". The female's head was pointed in the direction of the figure on the left and her butt was against the male figure on the right. Above the male figure on the right were written the words "Me".
While I was distrurbed by the words and the included drawing, I wasn't surprised. The first time I was called a nigger was when I was in the fourth grade. One of my fellow students (let's call him Tim), objected to my use of a water fountain in the hallway and said something to the effect of "Nigger, you're taking too long at the water fountain!" So, I knew that some people would negatively assess me solely based on the color of my skin.
I never found out who left the racist picture on my dorm room door, but I did receive this anonymous email a few years later:
Message-ID: <10253934.957639809546.JavaMail.email@example.com>Date: Sat, 6 May 2000 12:03:29 -0700 (PDT)From: anonymous name <firstname.lastname@example.org>To: email@example.comSubject: Anjuan:apologies May 97 letterDear Anjuan (R. Simmons), A while ago (about May 97) you may have received mail from me of an offensive nature. The letter was made anonymous. It was threatening too because of its meanness. I wanted you to know that everything about that was just a prank. I didn't even know you and I had no ill will towards you. In fact, the way I planned it, I would just pick someone's name out at random. I came up with yours. Then, I thought of some theme to add to the letter to make it mean. That's why it had the racist note to it. I'm not racist. For whomever I'd have picked, I would've added the appropriate theme. So please don't think that I have ill will towards you personally, or for your race or in any way whatsoever. I never did. I feel very sorry right now about what I did whether I caused alot of trouble or none. At the time I didn't think anything about ir, I guess I thought it would just cause anger for a little while and that's it. But I thought about it and was thinking different now.
Again, I'm very sorry and I hope you can forgive me.
P.S. Whew! Glad I found your emails on the internet
As you can see, the person who left the racist letter on my dorm room door insisted that he/she was not a racist in the same way that coach John Kelly believes that he is not racist. However, this anonymous person questioned a nigger pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and included a violent drawing of him raping my girlfriend in front of me. Therefore, this was clearly a racist act. Like John Kelly, this anonymous person engaged in racism when he thought he couldn't be be caught and then denied being a racist.
I've been asked by friends both in person and via online messages that I should stop talking and writing about racism and the need for programs like affirmative action that exist to help minorities both academically and professionally. They argue that such programs only result in division due to the perception that minorities receive unfair advantages. However, I strongly disagree. Affirmative action is not about giving unfair advantages. Affirmative action is about countering the unfair treatment of minorities that still exists in our society as well as correct the historical disadvantages that still slow our collective advancement. While I will be the first to celebrate a world where everyone is judged by the content of their character, I can't forget those 200,000 cases of Blacks and Latinos who have to pay more for their homes than whites simply because of the color of their skin. Nor can I forget the untold number of black kids who played for coach John Kelly who he mentally thought of as niggers. And I definitely can't forget Tim, who called me a nigger at a water fountain outside my fourth grade classroom or the anonymous person who used racism to intimidate me as I pursued my own academic goals. I cannot keep silent because racist mentalities have real consequences which can kill the dreams that many minorities have of owning a home, playing a sport, or of getting an education. To pretend that racism doesn't exist would betray those who need to hear about my own battles with racism. It's critical for them to understand that they, too, can overcome.