ON AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
Note: A large percentage of the 1989 version of essay below appeared, more that 18 months after its submission, as a 1991 ViewPoint article in the Buffalo News. The version below, revised 5/10/96, appears in Topological Commentary volume 1 # 2 of TopCom of the Mathematics web journal Topology Atlas.
Also see the related article River Runs True.
During the past week or so, I have heard/seen/read news media discussions on affirmative action. From a naive black University of Michigan law student to a psychologically unbalanced black University of California at San Diego English Professor, from unemployed white blue-collar workers to white "liberal" newspaper columnists, many individuals are expressing whys or why nots of continuing an affirmative action policy. It seems to me that each side's comments fall on the other's deaf ears. And as absurdities fly on both sides of the fence, I find that my African American and Algonquin Indian heritage prevents me from silence. Thus, I reveal below a case history of my own experience with affirmative action, and a little bit more.
Where would I be if the Russians hadn't beaten us in the "space race"? In the aftermath of Sputnik, even a few black colleges were given government money to teach promising high school students. So as an eleventh grader in 1959, I had the opportunity to learn some real mathematics rather than the pabulum fed in the Baltimore public schools. My career slowed in 1964 when fellow workers at an IBM research center responded to the Harlem riots by angrily shouting at me questions like, "What do you people want?" Finding answers forced me to vigorous activity within the civil rights movement. After a 1969 Lehigh University Ph.D., I co-founded the first association of minority mathematicians. It is curious that my 1964 graduate school application to Syracuse University was responded to with an application to undergraduate school, and my 1969 job application to the same institution was responded to with an offer to do graduate work.
I came to State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYAB) in 1971 with little more than a Penn State University postdoc on my hips, and a thanks to the aggressive affirmative action program that was my "pot 'o gold", for not all PhDs are equal in the eyes of the employer. My vague realization, that leadership in civil rights and anti-war organizations must flee through the back door in order for mathematical research to enter my bed was rewarded two years later when intense departmental scrutiny led SUNYAB gave me my first regular non-affirmative action position.
I had some luck, in my early years at SUNYAB. Thoughtful colleagues warned me that, despite public protestations to the contrary, community involvement, university committees, and dedicated teaching counted little for tenure, the academic's day of recognition, at the school aspiring to be the "Berkeley of the East". Indeed the university was rife with examples - a Puerto Rican engineer, a black economist - count among the "disappeared". Very few members of the 40 or so 1973 minority faculty association remained at SUNYAB in 1989
Sitting in the Madison Wisconsin home of a senior leader in my field of mathematics, I was told that her 1976 letter in support of my tenure case was held responsible, in part, for my university's negative tenure decision. It seems that the SUNYAB evaluators saw red with the phrase "... and he is also BLACK..." which followed the sentence "He is one of the rising stars in topology [an area of mathematics] ..." What my mentor thought was positive, "also Black", my SUNYAB evaluators thought as a negative - they didn't want a colleague who was "only Black." Forewarned, the mathematical community outside of Buffalo subsequently made no more allusions to race in letters of recommendation for me. I was awarded, by SUNYAB, tenure in 1978, and a Full Professorship came trouble-free in 1986. In fact, one colleague confided in 1985, that he had miss-evaluated my mathematics when he opposed my case in 1976. Another colleague pointed out that had I sued in response to the many civil rights violations which occurred in 1976, I would have received a national reputation - branded as a trouble-maker to universities.
Although I often lectured on my research at universities and conferences across the US and Canada, the distinction of "international reputation" was denied me until a one-time one-year affirmative action program funded my overseas travel in 1981. In Europe I was introduced to a group of Communist bloc mathematicians who said, "We have known of your work for five years, and at first we didn't believe your American colleagues when they said you were a Negro, and when we finally did believe them, we believed our government's propaganda - that your government did not allow you to leave your country." And then I was besieged with questions by these people whose knowledge of American race relations was limited to the 1930's, except for billy clubs in Alabama, riots in Los Angeles, and murders in Mississippi.
In response to my 1981 lectures in Amsterdam and Prague, I received invitations to speak in Austria, Egypt, East and West Germany, India, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, and Zimbabwe. I have, for example, lectured on my research at Warsaw University in Poland, and at Oxford University in England. As a response to nine weeks of lectures to faculty and advanced students at four universities in China (1988), I was made an Adjunct Professor at Beijing Teachers, and the city of Beijing indicated it would fund my next visit. Perhaps these other countries also have Affirmative Action programs for American blacks, but I doubt it, and can only conclude that my work has some intrinsic value. No program supported my travel in 1989, so I canceled lectures in England and Hungary. Since 1989 I have traveled with no or very little support from SUNYAB and/or overseas sources (Berne and Prague in 1991, Amsterdam in 1994). Upon learning of these facts, a mathematician in New York City said, "Don't YOU have an affirmative action grant?" It seems that I am expected to receive non-existent special funds while leaving the usual channels for the majority.
Is there enough racism to warrant affirmative action? "No longer!" is what I hear from contemporary whites. To them, history is forgotten or irrelevant. For me it is different, my mother's 1937 University of Maine Master's Degree in mathematics was not good enough for Ph.D. work at other institutions and was only fit for high school teaching at a time when white male bachelor degree holders were endemic in colleges throughout our nation. Similarly, my father's Penn State Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and high interest in research was only good enough for work as a Coast Guard cook in World War II, and for 15 to 24 hour/week teaching positions in Black colleges the next 35 years. For my parents, there was no time, money, or opportunity to do any thing but teach. After a 1975 lecture in Auburn Alabama, one mathematician confided that I could not have studied with his advisor, a recently deceased former president of the American Mathematical Society. For black persons one generation before me, similar stories are true, not only for my parents' two brothers and two sisters all of whom earned at least a Master's degrees by 1960, but for other individuals as well. For each "magical mystery tour", as experienced by the only African-american member of the National Academy of Sciences, the statistician David Blackwell who was "found" teaching 18 hours a week at a black college, and whose research abilities later led to a Full Professorship at University of California-Berkeley, there are 20 stories about math and science Ph.D.'s whose wish to live near Boston or Chicago or Detroit or Philadelphia in the 1950's resulted in work as a postal clerk. Prior to 1965, it was virtually impossible for a black to get a faculty position at a non-black institution no matter whether degrees came from Harvard or the University of Michigan. Too many faculty shared the general public's overt racism. In order to lead a successful career, I'm sure all people experience the same difficulties as the white majority. In every walk of life there are unpleasant and/or stupid fellow workers and bosses. However, minorities must play the "Jackie Robinson, first black in baseball" game daily. We must frequently ignore and forget experiences which I suspect would break an individual of the majority.
Yes, I have been the recipient of overt racism in the "real world" since birth. After "failing" a racist Latin teacher's 8th grade course (she said I cheated), I was placed with Vocational students and not allowed into the College Preparatory Program. After scoring extremely high on an IQ test, I was re-tested and scored higher (my parents complained of the re-test and learned the results). After earning over 700 on the College Board Examination, the 1959 equivalent of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), my high school decided it was a fluke and my guidance teacher did not support my application to any non-Black college. In the 1950's and early 1960's segregated Baltimore, Blacks knew that restaurants and movie theaters were off limits. However, in 1971 I was also not allowed to eat in a hotel restaurant across from Pennsylvania's state capitol building. Ironically, this hotel was the seat of an academic conference in which I participated, and this hotel once employed my grandfather as a bell hop his weekends off from teaching in the Harrisburg public schools.
In 1972 I suffered, not for the first or last time, a traditional indignity experienced by many Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans: I was stopped by Batavia police, frisked, and had my auto illegally searched. What motive? I had broken no laws, nothing was wrong with my car. They weren't even searching for someone with my description. No they were just "hunting." After "finding" drug paraphernalia, I was booked and allowed to make bail. It cost $300 plus humiliation in front of my department chair to have the charges dropped - the arresting officer did not even show up at the courthouse. In 1973 I was stopped this time by Amherst police, frisked, and had my auto illegally searched. Again I had broken no laws and nothing was wrong with my car. They were just "hunting." Now these were "good guys", for after discovering I was a university professor, they apologized.
Almost every time I return to the US, whether I am in Niagara Falls, New York, in Blaine, Washington, or in Kennedy International airport, I receive "special" attention from customs officials. At the beginning of my 1984 lecture trip to Warsaw, I was pulled out of the line of people boarding the Pan American flight, and I told to put my hands against the wall and spread my legs. Evidently, the guards wanted to ascertain, in detail, whether I was carrying weapons. In 1988, prior to five of the 15 flights I made out of Buffalo, I was subjected to the hand metal detectors at the airport even though the walk-thru's buzzer had not gone off.
In 1987, I was refused admission to a University Heights bar where I went to "sip suds" with some of my students I didn't have a sheriff's ID to "prove" I was 44 years of age. In the spring of 1989, with checkbook and university ID card in hand, I was refused the opportunity to rent the first 13 apartments I visited. Even in 1995, I am frequently scrutinized (i.e., followed) in stores, I suppose they think, no matter how I'm dressed, I am a 52 year old potential shoplifter. Of all these petty annoyances, the most painful to me was the White woman whose young son was misbehaving in a grocery store - she threatened her child by pointing at me and saying, "If you don't stop, I'll make that bogey man get you." So the next generation inherits the ignorance of our ancestors.
Yes, I have been the recipient of unconscious racism in academia. In 1977 at a University of Chicago mathematics department's "tea time", I was introduced as a mathematician and later asked if I was a student. One hour prior to my 1980 Naval Academy lecture, one of their faculty members, who "did not see" my suit, asked if I was "lost - separated from the men repairing the [building's] roof". As recent as 1988 new SUNYAB colleagues surreptitiously asked others if I am an "affirmative action appointee". In this, Shelby Steele, you are correct, "No matter how qualified you are, your qualifications are suspect." But it is wrong thinking that attributes such an attitude to Affirmative Action.
Oh yes, I experienced racism in foreign countries though in communist China, the Czech, Republic, East Germany, and Poland, "dressing" like an American often provided me an escape unavailable to visiting African students. Ironically, in our "free" country, blacks must endure the daily onslaught of unconscious slurs from shopkeepers, epithets hurled from passing pedestrians and motorists, unwarranted stops by police - just like blacks in Canada, England, France, and the former West Germany - just like Tibetans in Tibet, Gypsies in the Czech Republic, and Vietnamese living in Poland. For many blacks in white-american academia, existence can be compared to that of a Jew in Soviet academia
The rules which worked in the past for the Chinese, Irish, Poles, and Jews, etc., and which work in the present for Cuban and Vietnamese immigrants, can not be sensibly applied to African- and Native Americans. Although many groups came to the U.S. to escape persecution at home, Afro Americans are the only minority to come to this country as slaves and a decimated culture. The American Indians are the only minority to have faced genocide here, and to have their culture systematically attacked by our government. Thus, both groups have become the perpetual immigrants to their own country.
I do not believe in "crying over spilt milk". I do believe in cleaning it up before the heat of the summer makes the mess stink up my house. For you who have forgotten the message of the 1960's learned in the major cities of the U.S. (including Buffalo), remember 1989 Miami. "Miami" can happen anywhere. Shall we wait for our government to imitate the leaders of China in their Beijing June 3rd stupidity. Lest you think the U.S. is any better, remember the unarmed students gunned down at Kent State University in 1971 (the news media gave little or no coverage to the Black anti-war\civil rights demonstrators killed by police in Orangeburg S.C. a month earlier). At present, each group, in general, strikes out at its own - as frustrations caused by the "outside" are often taken out "at home". Perhaps one day, these two minorities will be forced to rebel against the continuing oppression of the past and present. The reason to have Affirmative Action in this country, which believes itself to be an example for the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, is freedom. How much freedom is there for people who are still refused opportunity because of color or sex or accent? How freedom is there for the ruling members of a society which ignores its history and does not atone for its misjudgments? Yes, any general inter-racial conflict in a country would likely crush the minority. But the same conflict would tear apart the country - witness Turkey and the Armenians, Germany and the Jews, and the former Yugoslavia.
Conscious racism puts an easily definable minority of equal or greater ability on a lower position than a majority applicant, just as conscious sexism does to women. Unconscious racism fails to see that an applicant with less than adequate qualifications on paper, might, due to personal struggles, be the more than adequate candidate. If you need an indicator of unconscious racism, listen critically to jokes made by Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, Jessie Jackson, and Louis Farakhan. A prime indicator is the news media's blame of Blacks for the over-whelmingly non-Black police attacker's riot after the trial of Rodney King's , or the discussion on the integrity (or intelligence) of Black jurors of the O.J. trial.
Where are we in the present? While those whites half my age claim "Blacks get the job whether qualified or not", I hear black students tell of teachers turning them away from their office door, or insulting their intelligence. Colleagues from all over America love to tell me of their surprise that some black earns an A in their course work (the telling is fine, but the "surprise" exhibits unconcious racism--know it when you see it). For the most part, racism in universities has been covert, unconscious, and somewhat dormant these past 20 years. Yet recent news items suggest the dragon awakes - outside of the university, it never slept. Have the minority firemen, policemen, and teachers hired the past ten years performed, on average, less well than their "far more qualified" co-workers? Does the evaluation of their performance possess any degree of objectivity? Not all Blacks are able to play the "Jackie Robinson, first black in baseball" game as well as I, most don't get the chance. Therefore, success stories such as mine are rare. Yet I am certain there are whites who would view as insignificant, the personal daily racial slights discussed above, especially since I have "made it" and especially since they have not had to experience it.
Mathematics Ph.D. or not, I needed a special beginning, and I know very well the excuses for my unsuitability the university would have made had it not been for moneys earmarked for hiring minorities. Such special programs no longer exist, so the university can make its excuses. In rare cases is university hiring and promotion consciously racist in orientation. However, unconscious racism is as strong as ever. For most of my 24 years at SUNYAB, I have been the single Black member of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and there is no Black member of the Faculty of Engineering. The excuse that "there are none" is ludicrous. If you want them, you can find them just as other universities have found ex-SUNYAB Black faculty (not satisfied with the prospects here), and new minority graduates of the more than 100 Ph.D granting institutions in the U.S. The reason to gamble with aggressive affirmative action in this country is to counter-balance the overt and conscious racism of the past which underlies the covert and unconscious racism of the present. Otherwise, "Equal Opportunity" remains unequal reality. An aggressive affirmative action policy would have sought after the Mexican American excellent mathematician I supported in the mid-1980's. He wasn't the "right kind" of mathematician, so instead we hired the "right kind" of Caucasian in the same field- he resigned after one year, and his "last minute" Caucasian replacement was not re-hired a second year. An aggressive affirmative action policy would have sought after the new black female mathematics Ph.D. who, a few years ago, was accurately (in my opinion as well) judged "not as a good as" those white male applicants the university wanted, but was unable to hire. She now teaches at a traditionally Black school with less opportunity for research. In the early 1980's Howard University became the first traditionally black school to offer a Ph.D. in mathematics. One African American, with excellent potential, graduate of this program received in 1987, no offer from research-oriented institutions - my own included.
The enormous number of hours required to do mathematical research limits my civil rights activity to the national level. In 1986, I was invited to Washington D.C., as a member of a large and diverse committee of scientists. We were charged with finding ways to slow, or to reverse America's declining position in the world of technology. The meeting was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and it was a director of that government organization who said that it was clear that by the year 2000, our country's position would be below that of all western Europe, as well as Japan, unless immediate action were taken, especially to encourage minorities into basic research. He ended his keynote address with "A more aggressive affirmative action policy is necessary at all levels, from grade schools to universities, and we hope you will tell us what to do." Needless to say, my quip, "Make all minorities psychological supermen" brought strained laughter, but counter-measures by the Reagan/Bush administrations and Supreme Court appointments made me think "As below, so above there is ignorance. What's the use in saying anything?"
An addendum: Worldwide political and economic problems have lead to large numbers of scientists and mathematicians desirous of obtaining positions in America. The applicant pool from Europe alone is so large that even Caucasian American males are having difficulty finding jobs. Of course, they often accuse (with help from recruiters) Affirmative Action programs as the source of the problem.
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