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Affirmative Action's Testament of Hope: Strategies for a New Era in Higher Education

By Tollett, Kenneth S., Sr. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action's Testament of Hope: Strategies for a New Era in Higher Education


Tollett, Kenneth S., Sr., The Journal of Negro Education


Affirmative Action's Testament of Hope: Strategies for a New Era in Higher Education, edited by Mildred Garcia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. 227 pp. $19.95, paper; Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action, by Bryan K. Fair. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 211 pp. $24.95, cloth; On Higher Ground: Education and the Case for Affirmative Action, by Walter Feinberg, with Foreword by Julian Bond. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 97 pp. $16.95, paper.

Reviewed by Kenneth S. Tollett, Sr., Howard University

Homo sapiens historically has been marked and dominated by three urges toward nature and fellow humans: (a) intellectual (to explain), (b) practical (to affect, influence, or control), and (c) mystical or religious (to awe, revere, and reunite (Tollett, 1968). The first urge is the source of art, symbolism, metaphor, and language and thus meaning; the second, influence and science and thus power; and the third, belief (Tollett, 1970, 1971, 1978) and faith and thus transcendence. Therefore, the symbols, language, and narratives of philosophical and public discourse as well as the law prescribe and describe reality. Professor Richard Delgado (1989), a leading critical race theorist, observed, "Stories, parables, chronicles, and narratives are powerful means for destroying mindsets-the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdom, and shared understandings against a background of which legal and political discourse takes place" (p. 2413). Delgado also maintained, "Storytelling builds community, consensus, common culture of shared understandings, and deeper, more vital ethics" (p. 2414).

The preceding mindset has resulted in recent years in Blacks losing ground in public sentiment and sympathy from the unbalanced, unsympathetic, or unconcerned projection or formulation, respectively, of their images, stories, or narratives, or of their needs, interests, or rights in the media and public discourse. The loss is contributed to and reinforced by semantic infiltration, which "refers to the appropriation of the language of one's political opponents for the purpose of blurring distinctions and molding it to one's own political position" (Steinberg, 1997, p. 23; see also Gill, 1980; Jones, Smith, McClendon, & Hildebrand, 1977; Steinberg, 1995; Tollett, 1991, 1992). Examples of semantic infiltration are reverse discrimination and colorblindness, which the adversaries of affirmative action have adopted.

Formalistically analytical arguments can manipulate "concepts of equality" by reducing "the question of racial equality to mere formalism, completely abstracted from history or [context]" (Crenshaw, 1997, p. 281, 285). This is suffused with what Stevenson (1944) called persuasive definition. He wrote, about such definitions, "In any persuasive definition the term defined is a familiar one, whose meaning is both descriptive and strongly emotive" (p. 210). Preferential treatment, reverse discrimination, and colorblindness would be such terms, the use of which alone "consciously or unconsciously... by the interplay between emotive and descriptive meaning" (Tollett, 1986, p. 186) redirects people's attitudes. Therefore, the position and predilection of those who dominate public discourse probably will predetermine or at least advantage and predispose its outcome in their favor by the way they project narratives or formulate issues, including their terms.

The public discourse challenge of the proponents of affirmative action is to maximize exposure to books that counteract anti-affirmative action narratives, semantic infiltration, formalistic analytics, and persuasive definitions. Three recent illuminating and forceful books implicitly, if not explicitly, do this in higher education, and they deserve widespread attention: Notes of a Racial Caste Baby by Bryan K. Fair, On Higher Ground by Walter Feinberg, and Testament of Hope edited by Mildred Garcia.

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