I am an Affirmative Action baby. Long Island Newsday paid my college tuition, in part, because of the color of my skin. It was my chocolate hue, too, that opened wide the door for my first job out of college, as a reporter for The Associated Press. I tell you these things because the Supreme Court will rule any day now on whether public universities can consider an applicant’s race in their admissions policies, changing the landscape of Affirmative Action. And as the discourse on the subject intensifies in anticipation of the ruling, I’ve grown mad tired of the chatter.
Chatter about exactly what Affirmative Action does.
Chatter about whom it’s helped and who it’s affected.
And especially the chatter about how awful and ineffective it is.
I readily raise my hand to say that those who argue against it are either clueless, blind or straight lying about how Affirmative Action affects mainstream America (read: white folks), and certainly how it changes classrooms, our workforce and lives.
This Affirmative Action baby’s story? My parents were by no means rich or educated: we lived a middle class existence financed by my parents’ factory jobs, and by the looks of it, we were living the American dream: Mom and Dad had a nice house with a yard and two decent cars to get them to work and church and bowling on Saturdays. But they were only a few paychecks off of having to ask for help, and, on a few occasions when my dad couldn’t find work, they did get that help. There were no fancy family vacations. New clothes came on special occasions—the start of the school year, Easter and Christmas. And extracurricular activities we take for granted today—eating out, taking in a movie or a concert, throwing a fancy birthday party—were rare because money and time were at a premium. Basically, money was tight.
They didn’t care if it was Yale or Suffolk Community College, higher education was expected for the children of these two African Americans born of the segregated South whose own education was limited by geography, circumstance, color and American law. But how we would pay college tuition was another matter entirely. My father made clear early and often that I would need to find a way to pay because surely, he could not.
I respected that. Understood it. And busted my ass to get the A’s and the extracurricular activities I needed to show scholarship committees that I was serious about being the first person in my family to go to college and using everything I learned there to become the kind of journalist that would make my employer and my parents proud. In the end, taking summer classes to increase my class ranking, working as a deejay at my school’s radio station and taking an extra class during my 11th and 12th grade year to learn how to use TV and editing equipment ultimately helped me earn my scholarship—a financial reward reserved solely for minorities (black, Latino, Asian, Indian, African—basically anyone but whites), designed specifically to help us get the college education we couldn’t otherwise afford and the training we needed to become qualified journalists in newsrooms where journalists of color were rare. Later, I competed for and earned a coveted internship in The Associated Press’s minorities program, which, too, was designed to diversify The AP’s workforce.
That was the very essence of my Affirmative Action programming: Long Island Newsday and The Associated Press needed more color in their newsrooms, so they pulled together some programs to find the best and brightest among us to get the job done.
Contrary to all of the foolish arguments used to smack down the effectiveness of Affirmative Action, I am not dumb. I was one of the brightest kids in my graduating class. I was not “handed” a job. I worked hard and earned it. I did not take up some coveted position that kept a white journalist from earning a position. In fact, in every job I worked at, save for my three-year-stint at the black-owned Honey magazine, I was usually the only African American in the room most years, and one of, like, two, in the extra special times when my employers were feeling especially benevolent. What I was—and am—is bad ass. And valuable. And Newsday and The AP had the foresight to recognize this when I was just a kid, and certainly when they needed me most.
Be clear: had it not been for Newsday’s Minorities in Communications program and The Associated Press’s Minority Internship Program, there would be no Denene Millner, New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist. There would be no 21 books under my belt, no Essence magazine covers, no Parenting magazine columns. No MyBrownBaby.
More importantly, the value that I brought to each of my jobs—as a news and political reporter for The AP, as a political and entertainment journalist for The Daily News, as a features editor at Parenting—would have been missing. See, I took it as my personal mission to bring a different perspective to the otherwise lily white newsrooms and editorial offices of my previous employers—to remind through word, deed, stories and assignments that the readership consisted of much more than monied white men and their housewives. My journalistic instincts to cover news from a distinctly African American perspective not only earned me accolades, but served a vastly underserved audience that craves voices that speak to their experience—that understand its import.
This did not rob white readers of the day’s news; it added to their perspective—helped open their eyes to something new.
And I’d like to believe that we were all the better for it.
Contrary to what Affirmative Action naysayers shout from the rooftops and the covers of their anti-diversity tomes (I’m looking at you, Clarence Thomas), I am not scarred from having been given a job based on my race. Back then, I didn’t give an eff if my colleagues thought I wasn’t qualified for my position. I knew I deserved to be there and that I was kick-ass at my job, and really, that’s all that mattered.
I am, however, scarred knowing that as programs like those run by Long Island Newsday and The Associated Press were discontinued (The AP recently restarted its minority internship program), the ranks of African Americans and other people of color in the newsrooms has plummeted, leading to the wholesale bleaching of today’s news and the way communities of color are covered. And a whole lot of unemployed journalists of color who should be running these organizations are now writing $20 blog posts and struggling to find ways to make ends meet.
It’s a sad proposition repeated through all-too-many industries as businesses close the ranks and resort to the real Affirmative Action programs that no one wants to talk about—the one in which white bosses fill openings with friends and family members and associates that look like them—people they play golf with and have over for dinner and network with at fancy events at which you rarely see people of color, save for the ones serving the dinner and cocktails. Let’s talk about the financial assistance and the referrals and the role models and the guidance they create for people who look just… like… them.
And while whites educate and hire and finance their own, black unemployment rates soar, black poverty rates keep climbing and the hope that I have for my children and their children, too, dive bombs. Because I can’t be certain that the A’s my daughters make and the gifted programs they rock and the extracurricular activities they participate in and the aspirations they have to just… be… will be enough in a world that thinks that spotting a couple of little black girls in a virtual sea of whites will prove to be the epic downfall of an institution. The epic downfall of white folk. Like, really? Is ensuring a couple black kids are in the college classrooms, or in the internships or in the starter positions going to be the death of you? Really?
Rather than worrying about the whiny selfishness of a middle class white girl mad that she couldn’t get into her dream school, I wish the Supreme Court would seriously consider an America in which minorities become the majority but have neither the education nor the skill to run businesses and supervise employees and craft legislation and do what it takes to keep this country running. What we are creating with decisions to block access to people of color—people who bring diversity of background, experience and thought—is a country devoid of skill, ability, awareness, consciousness and the capability to lead, just when minorities become the majority.
Or perhaps this is all by design.
Whatever is going on, I need you to know that I am an Affirmative Action baby. And I’m damn proud of that fact. And whatever anti-diversity program chatter you’re hearing or spreading, I need you to ponder this one true thing: as long as black economic wealth is persistently non-existent compared to whites, as long as there is educational disparity between the races, as long as police continue to stop and frisk children of color solely because their skin is brown, as long as Wall St. and its financial institutions can continue to charge higher interest rates and rents and rob African Americans of what little wealth we have and get away with it, as long as black women continue to be paid 60 cents on the dollar of white men, despite that they are the majority primary breadwinners in our households, Affirmative Action will be needed. Those stories will need to be heard in our classrooms. At our universities. In our newspapers. On our televisions. In our collective American narrative. Period and in that order.
From the lips of this Affirmative Action baby to God’s ears.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.