Affirmative action facing some disfavor, and for some 'babies,' it's time to reassess


September 20, 1991|By Tim Warren

Harry Johnson was admitted to the University of Maryland Baltimore County under a minority scholarship. In 1976, he entered the University of Maryland Law School and graduated three years later. In 1986, when named a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, he became the first black to attain such a position at a major Baltimore law firm.

Today he helps recruit for his firm, and even though Mr. Johnson believes in affirmative action, some aspects of it trouble him.

"I do not believe that any black person who has had the opportunity to go to professional school or college can be absolutely certain that they have not been part of an affirmative action program," he says.

"That's part of the problem -- many people think that you got where you are because of the color of your skin."

Mr. Johnson, 36, is what Stephen L. Carter, a Yale University law professor, would call an "affirmative action baby" -- a black professional who gained entry into colleges and rose in a profession in the affirmative-action era of the late '60s, '70s and early '80s. Once seen as an effective way to bring blacks out of poverty and into the middle class, affirmative action is increasingly viewed with disfavor, especially as the economy suffers in a recession.

A black middle class that has prospered under affirmative action now sees the policy under review and attack -- even within its own ranks. Politicians -- particularly conservatives -- have campaigned against it, and even some blacks, such as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, have spoken out against it.

And this fall, its efficacy is being questioned in a host of new books, most notably Mr. Carter's "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby."

In his book, Mr. Carter writes: "The affirmative action era has been a decidedly mixed blessing. . . . It is certainly true that as long as racial preferences exist, the one thing that cannot be proved is which people of color in my generation would have achieved what they have in their absence."

"There's a lot of pain involved in affirmative action," Mr. Carter said in an interview with The Sun. "It's the symbol of a larger struggle of racial unjustice. We as a nation have come a long way since the first slaves came, but we have a lot of work to do."

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. would agree. He was the first black student in Vanderbilt University's medical school when he enrolled in 1966; today he is, at 46, a world-renowned cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"My [undergraduate] grades [at Tennessee State University] were excellent," he says, "but my standardized testing probably was not as good as that of some of my colleagues." It's

possible that affirmative action played a part in his getting into medical school, he acknowledges, though he adds: "I've earned what I've got today. Nobody gave me a handout, and they didn't give me the operative techniques to conduct heart surgery, either."

Dr. Watkins is an unabashed booster of affirmative action. Raised in Montgomery, Ala., he remembers as a boy hearing Martin Luther King preach in his church, and among his friends have been such civil rights leaders as Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. He also is active in recruiting minority students for Johns Hopkins' medical school.

But for some "affirmative action babies," it is a time of reassessment and, in some cases, retrenchment. It remains a touchy topic -- three people who at first agreed to talk for this article changed their minds. "I've got my views," said one "affirmative action baby" who had indicated opposition to the policy, "but I'm going to keep them private."

Michael Jackson was accepted into the University of Maryland under an affirmative action program in 1972, and received grants and low-interest loans. Mr. Jackson, 37, now is a financial examiner in the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation, and acknowledges, "No question it would have been a little more difficult" to get into college without affirmative action. But, he adds, "I don't see it [affirmative action] as a stigma. It is something that is needed."

That stigma is the "downside" of affirmative action, says Mr. Johnson.

"I used to feel it all the time, but it's less so because now I have done things before the bar and people know what I can do," he says. "But you know, as a black person you'll feel resentment not just in law but in society in general."

Jamir Couch knows well the resentment that affirmative action can bring. Georgetown University's law school, from which she graduated in 1989, was involved in a fractious debate earlier this year when a white law student obtained confidential files that revealed black students' grades and test scores often were lower than those of white students.

"A lot of people don't really know what affirmative action is," says Ms. Couch, 28, an associate in the commercial litigation department at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

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