We Still Need Affirmative Action : A law school dean who has seen both sides says our imperfect system has provided opportunity to a generation.

<i> Karen Grigsby Bates writes from Los Angeles about modern culture, race relations and politics for several national publications. </i>

When Gregory Williams was appointed dean of the College of Law at Ohio State University, a number of people were delighted for him and the school. As Williams recalls it, a university well-wisher was effusive in her praise. “And then,” he says wryly, “she discovered I was black. And the first question she asked--not of me, but of someone else--was: ‘Well, did he get the position because he’s black?’ ”

Actually, it seems Williams got the position because he was qualified. But black and qualified, in too many American minds, seem to be an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.” The assumption that these two cannot coexist is part of the sacred mythology surrounding affirmative action. It’s a comfort zone for white people who feel disenfranchised by a system that takes race into consideration when all other things are equal. (You will notice that I did not say makes race the whole criterion for consideration.)

So yes, the board of governors at Ohio State University probably did take Williams’ race into account when they considered him for his deanship. They probably also took into account some other factors, such as his 22-year tenure as an administrator in higher education, his five degrees and his stated mission of having the legal profession “reflect the diversity of the society in which we live.”


But the woman who commented on Williams’ race knew nothing of his background. She was basing her decision on something else. “When she thought I was white,” Williams says, “she assumed I was qualified. When she realized I am black, she assumed I was unqualified. At neither point was there any discussion about my qualifications. Her view was based solely on race.”

Williams, who has white skin, has had a unique experience. Born in Virginia just after World War II, he attended segregated schools, swam in whites-only pools and sat in the orchestra at the town movie house, while his darker-skinned playmates were relegated upstairs to the balcony. “Nobody spent a lot of time talking about it,” he recalled during a recent visit to Los Angeles, “we just all knew that things had always been done a certain way.”

When Williams was 10, his parents separated. His father, whose business had collapsed, took Gregory and his younger brother, Mike, and relocated to his hometown of Muncie, Ind. En route, Dad dropped a little bomb on them: He wasn’t Italian, as he’d always told the boys; he was colored. “Life is going to be different from now on,” he said. “In Virginia, you were white boys. In Indiana, you’re going to be colored boys. I want you to remember that you’re the same today that you were yesterday. But people in Indiana will treat you differently.”

Just how differently these boys were treated because they were no longer white is the subject of Gregory Williams’ recent riveting autobiography, “Life on the Color Line; the True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.” But from his experience on both sides of America’s racial divide, Williams is convinced that we still have more planning to do before the playing field is truly level for all citizens and that affirmative action still has a vital role in achieving that.

“Affirmative action may not have worked the way everybody wanted it to, but it opened a lot of doors of opportunity for (nonwhite) folks and it enabled them to show that they did or didn’t have the ability to perform the functions for which they’d been chosen. So I think it’s a little early to think about eliminating affirmative action. If we do, we’re talking about saying to a generation of people, ‘We’re not interested in seeing what you’re able to do.’ ”

That’s certainly why an earlier generation of black men with college degrees found themselves working for public utilities companies and as Pullman porters instead of finding employment in schools, banks, law firms and other institutions and businesses that traditionally had been white. “I could be an unemployed black pharmacist,” said a friend’s father, explaining his position, “or a steadily employed black postal worker and send my children to college. What would your choice have been?”


The tragedy is that such a choice should ever

have been necessary. Or that, soon, it could be