One Banneker beneficiary sees healing in UM award, another cites 'hypocrisy' Scholarly Debate

July 08, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

When the Supreme Court struck down the Benjamin Banneker scholarship at the University of Maryland at College Park in May, it sided with a lower-court ruling that racism on campus -- if it reflects racism in society at large -- is not cause for redress by the university.

The decision to scuttle the scholarship for promising black students raises questions that epitomize the nation's daunting confusion over affirmative action: Are we as a society obligated to make up for centuries of slavery and racism? Is the University of Maryland, or any public institution, the place to do it? Will the court decision prevent any effective remedy for racial bias on campus? Is racial inequality history, or is it still a daily fact of life?

The Banneker's symbolic power has been recognized since its inception in 1978. Maryland courts had said has early as 1951 that the school must admit blacks and the Supreme Court formally ended school segregation in 1954. Yet College Park remained a segregated campus until 1970, when the states were ordered to increase "other-race" enrollments at historically segregated campuses.

Recruitment efforts markedly increased the university's black student body. The Banneker attracted outstanding black students from in and out of state. These students, in turn, made College Park a more palatable place for black students in general. Though the number of African-Americans on campus increased, it never reflected the population of Maryland, where one-fourth of residents are black.

In 1988, College Park administrators expanded Banneker and created the Francis Scott Key scholarship (open to all qualified students) as part of the university's new flagship status. Both scholarships offered full financial support for four years. At the time, Professor Raymond Johnson, chairman of the Banneker selection committee, insisted that the Banneker scholarship remain a separate entity with a less-demanding set of requirements, including lower SAT scores. He believed that cultural bias built into standardized tests would render black students ineligible for the highly competitive Key.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the Banneker will merge with the Key scholarship program this year, and university officials say uniform standards for acceptance will hold true for all students. The Banneker will dissolve into a general effort to lure gifted students. Its symbolic role as a good-faith effort to reverse decades of racism is dead.

But as other affirmative action programs undergo scrutiny in coming months and the country sorts out its complex feelings on the issue, it is instructive to listen to the voices of two Banneker scholars -- one on each side of the debate.

Doors opened

When the Benjamin Banneker scholarship was scotched, Robyn James' conviction was sadly upheld: Racism, however narrowly or broadly defined, is flourishing in the United States.

Nothing new, thought Ms. James, a dermatologist in Washington. As a Banneker scholar from 1982 through 1986, she was routinely reminded of racial bias on campus by the white women on her varsity field hockey team. They addressed her with fake jive, calling her "Mama," and asking if she could dance. In moments like those, Dr. James knew that discrimination was not history, but something she was living.

When her teammates taunted her, Dr. James would respond with an Ivy League football chant: "That's all right, that's OK, you're going to work for us someday."

In retrospect, maybe she was wrong, Dr. James says with a weary sigh. Maybe the Supreme Court's rejection of the Banneker is proof after all that she, a black woman, remains at the mercy of a racist society. "Maybe I really am working for them, because it's a white man's world," she says.

Dr. James came to Maryland from Rochester, N.Y. Without the handsome scholarship offer, she would have attended a state school in New York. The Banneker allowed her to live for the first time in a racially diverse part of the country. As she studied and socialized with other blacks, as she witnessed the local toll of poverty in the African-American community, Dr. James' mind opened to the beauty and pain of black life in America. Her identity as a woman of color blossomed.

And she realized that in Rochester, she had been quite naive. While attending a virtually all-white high school, "I didn't feel like I was different or like I was discriminated against." In hindsight, Dr. James knew she was. When she was never asked out on a date. When her high school guidance counselor recommended that she become a secretary, even though she had sailed through advanced placement physics and math courses. When she returned home one summer and couldn't get a waitressing job, despite plenty of posted openings.

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