What a topsy-turvy time. The U.S. District Court ruling that blacks-only scholarships at the University of Maryland do not violate the Constitution should have surprised no one in a state which for decades discriminated by law, but it did surprise many.
Two decades of white-led attacks on equal-opportunity, with much cheerleading by the federal government, had convinced many people that the civil-rights era was over.
The true anachronism, however, is the belief that two centuries of enslavement, a century of Jim Crow human-rights denials and decades of lynchings, job bias and discrimination everywhere could be simply put aside after the Sixties.
District Judge J. Frederick Motz' ruling, coming as yet another group of black students prepare for college, provides a timely reordering of views. But the claim made by plaintiff Daniel J. Podberesky, that he was more deserving because he had higher grades than 33 of 41 black Benjamin Banneker scholarship winners, raises yet again a shibboleth that needs retiring.
Opponents of affirmative action have used such claims to imply that few black students could match whites in a fair competition.
But there's a considerable difference in opportunities available to the blacks Mr. Podberesky disparaged and to the son of a senior counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Two recent events demonstrate the kind of performance you get when black students receive the nurturing they need to compete.
The first was Baltimore's first awards dinner for ACT-SO, the NAACP's ''Olympics of the Mind.'' The Afro-Academic Cultural, Technical and Scientific Olympics was conceived both to motivate young people to achieve and to motivate adults to recognize the kind of talent available in the black community.
The Baltimore NAACP has participated in ACT-SO since 1978. This year's program began last year with a kickoff breakfast at the National Aquarium November 1, orientation for public-school coordinators December 19 and orientation for students and parents in January.
Then competition began, with an April 7 talent showcase at the University of Baltimore, judges' orientation at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center April 18 and a final face-off at Chinquapin Middle School April 27. Students worked with ''enrichment center'' coaches at Eubie Blake, the Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Baltimore and Morgan State University. Medals were presented at the Forum Wednesday, amid high drama.
Last year's group sent local youngsters to the national NAACP convention in Los Angeles, where they faced Gold Medal winners from all over. Five Baltimore entries won national prizes and scholarships, in architecture, painting and sculpture, instrumental music and composition and classical vocals.
This year, more than 100 local kids competed for places in the group heading to the NAACP's Houston convention. Teachers, counselors and the students themselves said the kids' school grades and College Board scores went up. Best of all was the energy, which could be seen in their eyes and felt in the intensity around the room as awards were announced.
Thursday, Morgan State showed off its 1991 College of Engineering class in a reception at the Baltimore Engineering Society. Assistant Dean Jerome Atkins read off their impressive statistics: 46 graduates, 33 black, Maryland's largest-ever black engineering class; their 26 predecessors last year constituted 62 percent of the blacks competing bachelors studies in electrical engineering for 1990, 80 percent of the blacks getting bachelors in civil engineering and all of those getting bachelors in industrial engineering.
For 1991, 60 percent of Morgan's engineers finished with averages higher than 3.0, with four, Horace Moo-Young of Takoma Park, Nathaniel Butler of Burtonsville, Ivory Jones and Norie Calvert, both of Baltimore, finishing above 3.8. One electrical engineer, Yacob Astake, an Ethiopian turned Baltimorean, had a 4.0 average. Six students won GEM scholarships to go on to prestigious graduate programs.
Lincoln University president Niara Sudarkasa, writing in the 1988 ''State of Black America'' report, described the economic disincentives keeping black students from their highest potential. ACT-SO and Dean Eugene DeLoatch, who put Morgan's program together, are showing what can be done when the students' talents are nurtured, tutored and boosted to their best. Such demonstrations hold much promise for everyone.