Martin Luther King Jr.’s, famous dream was that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In honor of the day, speak up the next time you encounter racial discrimination. The bad news is that there are still plenty of opportunities to do so; the good news is that, if you do, the discriminator will likely capitulate.
Here’s an experience I had earlier this month. A friend of mine, who teaches at a nearby university, e-mailed me a notice he recently received, from another school I will call “X State University.” It began:
I am pleased to provide you with information about the X State University Law School Summer Program. This four-week program is designed to acquaint students from groups that are historically underrepresented in the legal profession with the study of law and to encourage them to think about law as a possible career choice. We ask for your help in providing information about this program to freshmen, sophomores and juniors in your institution. … Please forward the message below to [them].
Now, in the groves of academe, “historically underrepresented” groups means African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. So what this notice was saying was, please encourage your students to apply to our program–which offered room and board and a $500 stipend, by the way–as long as they aren’t white or Asian. Accordingly, I sent this e-mail to the X State official:
Recently we were forwarded the e-mail below that you sent to a professor regarding X State University’s Law School Summer Program. While your own website describes eligibility for this program in these terms: “Students from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply. We particularly welcome students from groups historically underrepresented in the legal profession.,” your e-mail, unfortunately, mentions only “students from groups that are historically underrepresented.” This will be read as limiting the program to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Since it would be illegal to run such a racially exclusive program, I urge you to change your e-mail so that no one mistakenly assumes that whites, Asians, and others need not apply. We look forward to your reply. Many thanks for your attention to our concerns.
I immediately got back this reply:
Thank you for your e-mail, Mr. Clegg. As our website and program brochure indicate, our program is open to all students. I see how that was not as clear as it could have been in the e-mail that was sent out. Please know that I anticipate sending further follow-up communications (both in writing and electronically) about the program to this list of pre-law advisors in the upcoming weeks and will make certain that this is more clearly communicated. Thank you for alerting me to your concerns.
The same professor who sent me X University’s notice in the first place recounted his own recent minor victory, involving his alma mater. He saw a program advertised on the school’s website that offered teacher-training opportunities for, again, underrepresented minorities. He called the school up, asked if indeed members of other racial groups were ineligible, and was assured that, no, color did not matter. The website was then changed.
So one phone call, or one e-mail, can make a difference. The Center for Equal Opportunity has persuaded dozens of universities, employers, and state and local governments to end racially discriminatory programs, just by pointing them out (and, to be sure, also pointing out that they are illegal and could lead to, ahem, legal problems). These programs have involved K-12 and higher education; public and private employment; and government contracting.
Now, I know that sometimes, although the way the program is advertised may be changed, it can still be run in a way that gives some individuals a big plus and others a big minus, based on skin color. But I also have no doubt that changing the formal description does matter. There will be legal and administrative–even moral–pressures to conform what the university says it is doing with what it is in fact doing. And students who were shut out before now have at least a chance.
Speaking up makes the world a better place, even if not a perfect one, and making the world better is worthwhile, even if we don’t make it perfect.
Here’s a favorite parable:
An old man was walking along a beach. He came to a place where hundreds of starfish had been washed up on the shore. The tide was going out, and so all the starfish were doomed to die. But a little boy was hurling the starfish, one by one, back into the sea. The old man went up to the little boy and said, “Son, it’s hopeless. You can’t possibly save all these starfish.” But the little boy did not stop. He picked up another starfish, threw it back into the sea, and said, “Well, I saved that one.”