Affirmative action and me

When I was just under 16 years old, I was awarded a scholarship which entitled me to go directly from the 10th grade of Williamsport (Md.) High School to the freshman class at the University of Wisconsin. This was in 1952, during the Korean War, and the Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarships were intended to allow bright boys (girls were brought in later) to complete college prior to their military service obligation.

Some years later Prof. Herbert Howe, the administrator of the Ford scholarships at Wisconsin (three other college participated in the program) told me how the selection was made. His original idea was to award the scholarships based on scores on tests given to applicants. The letter of application was also a factor; he weeded out a guy who said he would “try to be a good egg and a credit to the Wisconsin omelette mater.”

But when the test scores came in, all the highest scores were by students in two elite high schools in New York City – the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. Since it wouldn’t look good to give all the scholarships to students from just two high schools, he restricted them to 50 percent of the scholarships, and also allocated 10 percent of the scholarships to residents of the state of Wisconsin.

My own test scores were nothing special, he said; he chose me because I was the only applicant from the South and because I chose to be tested on my knowledge of history and English rather than the sciences, as all or almost all the other applicants had. He said he thought that just because I was so different from the others, it would be interesting to take a chance on me and see how I worked out.

In other words, I was a beneficiary of affirmative action. I was chosen on the basis of my demographic characteristics rather than my achievements. I was chosen for the sake of “diversity.”

I was glad he waited until I had a couple of years of college under my belt before telling me this. If I had known this right off the bat, it would have shattered my self-confidence.

I didn’t, and I don’t, feel bad about the reason I was given the scholarship. But because of this experience, I don’t get indignant because here and there blacks or Hispanics get something they aren’t strictly entitled to.

By the way, I never met any black Ford scholars. I don’t think there were any, but there could have been some, because I didn’t meet all of them. Prof. Howe kept us separated so that we would blend in with the rest of the college population and not come together as a separate group. It never occurred to me back then (the program ran from 1951 through 1955)  to notice the absence of black Ford scholars or wonder about the reason for it.

As I stop and think about it, I have never in my life gotten anything important on the basis of merit – if you define merit as ranking based on objective criteria in a contest that is open to all. Every job I’ve gotten, I’ve got because I had a friend in the right place to recommend me. I became a business reporter for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle in 1978 because, when the job opened up, I was the only one who wanted it. In a few years business news coverage started to boom, and the D&C turned away applicants who were much more qualified than I was. The D&C turned away people with Masters of Business Administration degrees; I had no formal qualification whatsoever, only a willingness to learn.

I don’t feel I wronged anybody. There is a subjective and a random element to life which you can’t eliminate. Besides, my friends wouldn’t have recommended me for jobs unless they thought I could do them. And I wouldn’t have kept the jobs unless I actually could do them. All I got was a chance to prove what I could do.

At the same time I have to recognize there were a lot of people – many but not all black or Hispanic – who didn’t get the same chance I did to prove themselves.  Anybody who gets a job or college position through “affirmative action,” or “diversity policy” or whatever you want to call it, gets no more than what I got, a chance to prove themselves.  They are not going to be trusted with anything important until they prove to the decision-makers they can handle the responsibility.

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