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Affirmative Action’s Invisible People

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By Lee A. Daniels
Director of Publications
National Urban League


I spent part of the weekend with a large group of some of America’s most invisible people.

They’re not actually invisible, of course; this wasn’t a convention of ghosts. In fact, they’re very much flesh-and-blood and focused on being productive and doing well in the real world.

That means I wasn’t among those timeworn figments of the fevered imaginations of the opponents of affirmative action—the “unqualified” black youth undeservedly occupying seats at leading colleges and universities.

Instead, I was at the annual conference of the African-American Student Union of the Harvard Business School. It brought nearly 500 HBS students and alumni (and a large contingent of undergraduates from various colleges) together in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three days of discussion, advice and networking.

The conference’s theme was “Redefining Wealth: Claim It, Grow It, Sustain It!” But, as Rayford L. Davis and Raquelle E. Thigpen, the organization’s co-presidents, stated, their intent was “to view net financial worth as only one facet of what being truly wealthy really means.”

To that end, many speakers on the various panels made much of the necessity of acquiring wealth, not merely for self-satisfaction, but in order to aid the economic development and political progress of Black communities, large and small.

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program, this was a gathering that underscored with crystalline clarity two things.
The first thing it makes obvious is what affirmative action has done for the larger American society.

Last weekend’s was the 31st annual conference staged by the HBS Black student union—a fact which refers in outline to the significant numbers of African-American students who have graduated from Harvard and other business schools during the past three decades and gone on to contribute to innumerable corporate bottom lines, staff in growing numbers the faculties of Harvard and other business schools, and enrich the larger American society.

The second thing conferences like this make obvious is why some people are against affirmative action.

For it is at gatherings like these that one can see those people who are at the center of the raging debate over affirmative action, but who are rarely actually talked about and talked to: Black students and alumni from top-rung colleges and universities who represent both compelling individual stories of achievement and the individual examples of an entire ethnic group’s advance deeper into the American mainstream.

It is at gatherings like these that one gets a powerful sense of the depth and breadth and variety of achievement orientation among Black Americans.

The writer Albert Murray referred to this drive in The Spyglass Tree, a fictionalized memoir of his youth, as the indelible “ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody.”

It was a quality fully evident in the resumes of the panelists, which contained enough multiple degrees, academic honors, and post-graduate achievements in the business world to impress even the most jaded.

It was even more apparent in the intensity of the spirit of the many panelists. Whether they were conservative corporate types or the relatively more freewheeling entrepreneurs, their commitment to the pursuit of achievement was almost palpable.

And it was apparent in attentiveness of the undergraduates among the throng to every word their elders spoke.
David A. Thomas, an HBS professor and an authority on executive development and diversity in the workplace, who’s attended many of the conferences, said among the most important of their functions is that “they make a lie of the rhetoric that affirmative action rewards people who are unqualified.”

That’s the view of many others who inhabit the real world of affirmative action.
It was that clarity of vision which impelled both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell to support its use recently—in effect, disputing the position against affirmative action taken by President Bush.

It’s that clarity of vision which, according to a recent story in the New York Times, has provoked “dozens” of significant American corporations to prepare to file briefs with the Supreme Court in support of affirmative action.

And it’s that clarity of vision which has caused officials of the nation’s service academies—the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the United States Air Force Academy—to proclaim the value of their own use of affirmative action in admissions.

Finally, it’s that clarity of vision about the value of affirmative action which Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy captured when he said, referring to the military academies, “Clearly, diversity in our military is a national priority.

But it’s also a national priority for our colleges and universities, which are the gateways to opportunity. If we followed the administration’s policies, we’d be a lesser nation, a lesser society.”

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