SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Making Room for Sadie and W.E.B

By Malveaux, Julianne | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Making Room for Sadie and W.E.B


Malveaux, Julianne, Black Issues in Higher Education


SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Making Room for Sadie and W.E.B..

Julianne Malveaux

When Kansas Senator Bob Dole starts talking about slavery and affirmative action, we'd better watch out. What better way to assuage the "rage of the white males" than by dismantling the programs which have opened doors to women and minorities. Dole said some of the right things during a recent appearance on "Meet the Press." But in wondering whether those born generations after slavery should have to pay for things that happened "before they were here," he ignored the weight of institutional privilege and the extent to which affirmative action has been successful.

Let's be clear. Affirmative action is a flawed way to open doors for those who have been historically excluded from education, workplaces and entrepreneurial activity. In its purest form it forces a look at the pipeline, the process of educational, occupational and entrepreneurial attainment, as well as a revision of the way the goodies are awarded. If, for example, it takes "who you know" to secure employment, a look at the pipeline might suggest another method of access. That rocks the boat, alters the status quo, and changes the power relationship.

In less pure form, though, affirmative action "goals and timetables" may pressure some to search for a woman or minority candidate at any cost, and to place a candidate without regard to "qualifications." It isn't often that "unqualified" women or minority candidates get jobs, but it seems to be white America's greatest fear, as if nepotism and other preferential treatment had been invented by African Americans.

The "q" word bears some examination in historical context. White men are resisting affirmative action because it works. Some of the most objectively qualified African American intellectuals couldn't find places at the Ivy league table because of raw, ugly exclusion, the purest form of racism. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, wrote a doctoral dissertation that won accolades at Harvard University and "withstands the test of time" as a study of the slave trade. He was appointed as assistant instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he did the ground-breaking "Philadelphia Negro" studies that defined much of modern sociology.

There was no space, no place, for W.E.B. Du Bois in the mainstream academy, though, and the premiere Black intellectual of the 20th century, though prolific and productive, died at a distance from the land of his birth, partly estranged by the intensity of our native racism and exclusion.

Dr. Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander lived a full life as an attorney and civic leader in Philadelphia, and died not at all estranged from the land of her birth. But we, her intellectual offspring, are the losers from the exclusion she experienced in the days before she was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, when she did economic research but could not find a place to pursue her career. …

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