With parents who both had successful careers in education, as did an impressive number of their closest friends, it should come as no surprise that the pursuit of academic excellence has been a driving force in my life. From my elementary years to Jesuit instruction during high school and from college to graduate studies and degrees, I’ve never been able to fully quench my thirst for knowledge.
As a little boy, whenever I would complain about being bored — a ruse often employed by children like me who had no siblings — my mother would invariably suggest that I find a “friend” from among the several bookshelves in our home. Even after I outgrew that distinctively awkward stage of life, leaving behind my nerd-like persona like the ugly duckling, eventually spreading my wings as a beautiful swan, my hunger for knowledge never wavered.
While I can remember some of my best friends having the propensity for working with and mastering numbers, formulas and calculations — all with ease — I have always had an uncanny ability to easily comprehend and manipulate language via both the spoken and written word.
At one point during junior high school, I decided to temporarily engage mental cruise control so that I could focus on dribbling, layups, free throws and jump shots — tools of the trade for those with short-lived dreams to become the next Dave Bing, Curtis Rowe or Bob Lanier. They were the all-stars who played for my hometown’s basketball team, the Detroit Pistons, during my youth.
I never reached the heights for which I once hoped, but a day of reckoning would come in quick fashion. When my report card came, my slew of normal straight A’s had disappeared, replaced with grades to which I was unfamiliar — mostly C’s. My father could not contain his anger and as punishment, deducted several dollars from my weekly allowance, informing me that given my academic abilities, earning a “C” was equivalent to cheating. I understood his conclusion and realized that I had not done my best.
As for my mother, she tackled me while employing the philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois who posited the vital role that the Talented Tenth were called upon to play within the Black community. My destiny, she surmised, was to one day join that small cadre of intellectuals who would use their gifts and talents for the benefit of our race. Then she added an additional caveat: while membership would allow privileges, it also bore great responsibility. My parents’ admonishments guided me as I moved from grade school to graduate school, fueling my commitment to burn the midnight oils, toil amidst the library stacks on Fridays nights and Saturday mornings — focusing on the finish line while delaying dreams of gratification for more opportune moments.
I share these reflections in efforts to refute the recent allegation lodged by the U.S. Justice Department against Yale University for its alleged illegal bias in the school’s admissions process. No, I did not attend Yale. But I could have as I was admitted for undergraduate studies. I chose the University of Michigan [UM] as it was both closer to home and far more economically prudent.
Did race play a role in the admissions process — one which benefited students of color in 1978 when I was admitted to the freshman class? Undoubtedly. Nonetheless, those of us who matriculated at and graduated from UM were students with exemplary high school records prior to our admission. We were, as our counselors in the Minority Affairs Office who provided all kinds of support for students of colors often emphasized, “the best of the best.” To that end, our diplomas were not handed to us — we earned them.
And lest we forget, just a generation ago, Blacks, simply because of the color of our skin, were denied access to colleges like UM, Yale or any other university from among America’s upper echelon of academies of higher learning. So, while U.S. colleges and universities have attempted to make up for decades, even centuries, of racial discrimination, our numbers still pale in comparison to those of our white counterparts.
Once, while walking across the center of UM’s campus, a place referred to as The Diag,” I remember seeing another Black student and literally running toward them as if I was greeting a family member who had been gone for years. We shared similar pain and prejudice in our matriculation. My experiences at Emory University and later at Princeton Theological Seminary [PTS] would be replete with similar kinds of memories tantamount to the angst one suffers when existing as the proverbial fly in the buttermilk.
However, I excelled at Emory, in part, due to the prudent decision to establish a study group with two other students — a relationship to which we remained committed throughout our three years as students in pursuit of a Master of Divinity in the Candler School of Theology. I forged a significantly lonelier path during my doctoral studies at PTS despite having the privilege and right to attend classes across the yard at Princeton University. In many of my classes, I felt like I was speaking for the entire Black race as the sole African American in the room — holding up the banner as a one-man study group. But I survived and thrived.
Whites, and more recently Asians, have long been afforded access to people who hold membership in and places that represent the ivory towers of American society. The same cannot be said for Blacks, albeit within the last several decades. When opportunity arose for Blacks, however, it inevitably occurred because of our willingness to go beyond the mediocre — to overachieve — while often feeling like we had to prove that our admission into the hallowed halls was merited.
I wonder if whites and Asians will ever admit how much they have benefited from the unmerited privilege to which they’ve long been granted in American society at all levels — doorways to and connections with the elite that only a handful of Blacks have ever attained. And still, they cry foul while alleging bias.
As recently as 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of race-consciousness admissions, within limits, to help colleges realize the educational benefits of campus diversity — a goal that has yet to be achieved. Black and brown Americans deserve seats at the table, a few designated admission passes, not because of the color of our skin but because through blood, sweat and tears, we’ve earned it.