Illustration by Shino Arihara

Admission to the Feast

I am an affirmative-action baby. At least, I think I am; though everybody talks about it as if its beneficiaries wear scarlet letters or armbands, affirmative action is invisible to all but those privileged few — employers, college admissions officers — who actually keep the gates of power and collectively tend the manicured paths to American middle-classdom. All I know is that when I was admitted to UCLA in 1979, race was doubtless a factor, even though I more than qualified via grades and test scores. My acceptance letter said congratulations, but it didn't congratulate me for being black.

For the record, I did well academically and graduated in four consecutive years, but this modest success did not mean that life thereafter kept a straight course aided by the magical machinations of affirmative action. To the contrary, the real world was where I routinely began encountering racial antipathy, and apathy, and had a major institution of higher learning not so recently bolstered my intellectual confidence with a degree, I might have believed I was only imagining historical insults that arose. When a graduate professor years later accused me of plagiarizing a term paper because I "didn't speak that well," it was one indignity in a whole litany. The incident served to remind me that the value of affirmative action depends not on government largess, but on its recipients' perseverance. In other words, affirmative action does not end at getting into college or getting a job, but encourages the infinite pursuit of fairness in a million daily-life decisions. Such an imperative might be well beyond the dictates of affirmative action, but it is not beyond its essence.

Last month I met a tall, beleaguered, bespectacled law student named Marky Keaton who gave me reason to hope that the imperative did not end with my generation. Keaton belongs to a group of students who call themselves UCLA School of Law Students of Color, and last month they filed an amicus brief supporting the merits of affirmative action at the University of Michigan's law school, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next week. The group, alternately known as SCARE (Students of Color Against the Resegregation of Education) is a rainbow coalition of black, Latino, Native American and Korean, but it numbers only about 20, which reflects the scarcity of color at the law school since affirmative action was dropped by the UC regents in 1995 (and the passage of Proposition 209 the following year). The scarcity of blacks, whose presence has always been a bellwether of equity in higher education, is downright retro: This year's graduating class has five black students out of 300-plus. That five includes one black male, Keaton, who entered UCLA three years ago with one other black male.

Keaton has many stories to tell about the psychological toll of being the Only One, but it's a story we already know — James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, Little Rock before that. That we have something even remotely analogous in 2003 is eyebrow-raising, but somehow acceptable. Anthony Solana said he and other fellow group members had tried to organize affirmative-action support for three years among graduate students to no avail; even the radical outfit La Raza wasn't biting. The dean of UCLA's law school concluded that however sympathetic he and other faculty were to the cause individually, they couldn't get involved institutionally because it contradicted official UC policy.

Group member Steven Kwon doesn't buy it, especially from law experts. "To take this stand, students risk everything and the profs risk nothing," he scoffs. "It's cowardly for them to hide behind this thing of what's illegal and what's not. It's a matter of what's right."

Disappointed but undeterred, the group resolved to write the brief themselves. They spent the first months of the year drafting it between study and exams, once for 16 hours straight in a campus space that came to be known as the Civil Rights Room; Keaton and Erika Woods, another black student, did much of the principal writing. The group didn't have the academic imprimatur they wanted, but they still produced a cogent, clear-eyed argument for diversity as a compelling interest of the state and a necessary safeguard against the resegregation of public education already declared unconstitutional by Brown v. Board of Education.

The brief cites other legal precedents for diversity, and includes pages of testimonials submitted by fellow law students of color throughout the UC system who detail the isolation and unsubtle pressures of being, say, one of very few black faces in a constitutional-law class that routinely minimized or ignored the racial underpinnings of the American legal system. Students testified to being damned if they spoke out, damned if they didn't. When one raised questions about the "three-fifths" compromise in the U.S. Census, which counted a black as three-fifths of a person, her professor snapped that "this is a class about constitutional law, not race."

Another Latino student at Davis described the irony of having only four blacks on a law-school campus named for Martin Luther King Jr.; yet another student at Boalt Hall in Berkeley decried the fact that a storied black law publication on campus is withering because there aren't enough blacks to staff it. As painful and resonant as the confessionals were to read, the UCLA group says, the sheer volume of submissions to their testimonial request was empowering. "I think the people behind us in other classes are energized because we broke their isolation," says Solana, who grew up in East L.A. "That pent-up energy finally found some release."

Solana, like Keaton and Woods, is not just an Only One but a first — the first in his family to attend college or go to postgraduate school, a background that itself is an argument for affirmative action. Keaton and Woods have that in common, as well as race, though not necessarily politics and experience. She says Keaton leans much further to the left, in part because he came to UCLA law school from all-black Morehouse in the South and she from across town at USC, where she had grown expert at being one of a relative handful of blacks in largely white institutions. Keaton is affable but looks permanently weary; he says his time at UCLA drained him in ways he never expected. "I have to deal with a lot because there are no other black males in the school," he says. "I'm worse now than I was. I used to come on very strong and feisty, but now I feel worn down." He claims he's "not here to educate white people," but that inevitably happens, and it's a cursory education at best. Were it not for the emotional support provided by Students of Color, Keaton doubts he would have made it this far. "I have to deal with a lot of issues by myself," he says. "I have to deal with the statistics of black males in prison in criminal-law class. It's been awful." To add insult to injury, he was once profiled by the campus police as a suspect in a theft case because, he says, he fit a description. Woods says writing the brief changed her; where she once accommodated and even normalized the paucity of color in the legal profession, "now I'm going in the door and aggressively asking, 'Why is there only one black person in this firm?' And I don't care about the response."

But the devil can be in the response, particularly in the response you don't see or hear. I have a white friend who bought a house some years ago and inherited the deed that still contained a restrictive covenant against selling the property to blacks. He professed to be shocked and disgusted by it, yet he never acted to expunge the covenant because, like a lot of people, he likes to believe that what is no longer legal has no effect. Yet ethnic oppression in America has long followed the maxim of physics that matter is never quite destroyed but merely changes form. Solana is entirely qualified to be at UCLA, as I was, but he also says he's lucky ("We just got through," he says with a shrug. "I missed a few arrests"). He feels duty-bound to use that luck in service to the unfinished business of racial equity, which for him — for all of these students — is not a boutique item on a liberal wish list that tatters with age, but the virgin stuff of a fundamental American wish written in our own hand, passed with both contempt and compassion from one era to the next.


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