Monday, May 16, 2016

At Holy Cross and the U.S. Dept. of Education by Clarence Thomas

I felt surer of myself when I returned to Holy Cross in the fall. Though my first year there had been tougher that I’d expected, I was on the dean’s list, and I proudly informed one of my black classmates that I wanted to go to Harvard Law school. He laughed but I set my jaw and told him I was serious. I wasn’t, not really. Harvard meant nothing to me compared to the prospect of helping to fight the wrongs of segregation. The thought of going there wasn’t much more than an adolescent fantasy, but it had the advantage of being both tangible and ambitious. It wasn’t easy being black at Holy Cross, and without a clear-cut goal to strive for, no matter how unrealistic, I might well have floundered and gone under, as so many of my new friends were to do.

To my knowledge there was no significant difference in the academic records of the white and black students at Holy Cross, and many of the blacks did who went there did superbly well. My friend Gil Hardy, for instance, was a seventeen-year-old freshman from Philadelphia whose slangy talk and self-depreciating, down-to earth demeanor fooled some of his classmates into underestimating him – though not for long. Even as a freshman, Gil took mostly upper-level classes, including Greek and Latin, and his fist semester grade point average of 3.9 won him the nickname Three-Nine. Nor was the administration unaware of the difficulties we faced as the school’s first group of black students. Father John E. Brooks, the vice-president for academic affairs, was especially sensitive to our situation,. And though he refused to water down the school’s stringent academic requirements, he did everything he could to help us meet them.

But for every Gil Hardy, there was another talented black who was losing his way at Holy Cross, and I soon say that merely being smart was no guarantee of success. Some black students gave up and stopped going to class, while others started using drugs or dabbling in cult-like Eastern religions. Their problem was that they lacked the social experience that would it easier for them to leave the comfort zone of segregation and move into the white world.. Many of them, I suspected, might have done better had they gone to schools closer to home or to predominantly black colleges,. Which would have allowed them to grapple with the ordinary challenges of young adulthood without having to simultaneously face the additional challenge of learning how to love among whites. Yet Holy Cross, like other colleges around the country, continued to admit them in fast-growing numbers. When I arrived, there was only one black senior and two juniors; I was one of six blacks admitted in the freshman class. Too many of the latter group did poorly, as did subsequent classes, and some failed outright. Why, I asked, were these gifted young people being sacrificed on an alter of an abstract theory of social justice –and who profited from their failure?

This was my first brush with racial heterodoxy. The next one came when members of the Black Student’s Union voted to set up a separate black living area known as the “black corridor.” Supporters of the plan claimed that because there were so few blacks at Holly Cross, it was important that they live together so as not to feel isolated. I didn’t see it that way. Did we really want to do ourselves  what whites had been doing to us? Besides, I like my white roommate and didn’t want to stop living with him. But the other members of the BSU voted for the corridor, and in the fall of 1969 the administration allowed black upperclassmen to live together on the fourth floor of of one of the dormitories. For the sake of ‘solidarity’, I chose to live there instead of going my own way.

Not all of Holly Cross’s black students moved onto the corridor. Some continued to live off campus, while others objected to the corridor on principle and were ostracized for refusing to live there. I secretly admired their tenacity. I had already stared to notice that many of my fellow blacks found it hard to relate to white students other than confrontationally, and I suspected that the existence of the corridor would make it harder for them to adjust to life at Holy Cross. Even though I was not intimidated by whites, I still felt the tension that arose from my unfamiliarity with white customs, and it may be that the corridor helped me and other black students to deal with this chronic  and predictable problem. Still, I knew we couldn’t have it both ways, at least not for very long. Sooner or later we would all have to learn how top love among whites, and I saw no reason to put it off any longer than was absolutely necessary.

That wasn’t the only thing I disliked about the corridor. I was also troubled by the alacrity with which Holy Cross had yielded to our demands. Some blacks on campus already thought that the mere existence of racial oppression entitled them to a free pass through college, and the administrations apparent willingness to accommodate us now led these black students to assume that they would always be able to get whatever they wanted. But I foresaw when it  would no longer be fashionable to give blacks helping hand, especially after the generation of whites who remembered segregation was gone, and it seemed just as clear to me that Hispanics and women would  soon start making similar claims, thus putting them in competition with blacks.

Preferential policies intended to help blacks adjust to life after segregation were very much on my mind in those days, and now I began to think them through in a more systematic way. Talented blacks stuck on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder clearly deserved such help but the ones who most often took advantage of it were considerably higher up on the ladder. Most of the middle-class blacks with whom I discussed these policies argued that all blacks were equally disadvantaged by virtue of their race alone. I thought that was nonsense. Not only were some blacks more economically successful than others, but many light-skinned blacks believed themselves to be superior to their darker brethren, an attitude that struck me as not much different from white racism. Even know blacks don’t like to talk about that kind of prejudice, but it had been a very real part of my life in Savannah, which was for all intents and purposes segregated by race but also by class and color.  I though that preferential policies should be reserved for the poorer blacks whose plight was used to justify them, not the comfortable middle-class blacks who were better prepared to take advantage of them – and I also thought the same policies should be applied to similarly disadvantaged whites.

On the other hand, I didn’t think it was good idea to make poor blacks, or anyone else, more dependent on government. That would amount to a new kind of enslavement, one which ultimately relied on generosity – and ever changing self-interests – of politicians and activists. It seemed to me that the dependency it fostered might ultimately prove as diabolical as segregation, permanently condemning poor people to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder by cannibalizing the values without which they had no  long-term hope of improving their lot. At the time, these ideas seemed to me a logical extension of my distrust of “the man,” though in fact they were rooted in the lessons Daddy had taught me [His Grandfather, who honored back-breaking work, self-reliance, making the best of the situation and did not accept racism as an excuse for failure- with a stick if necessary]. I didn’t know how heterodox they were, much less that they were about to lead me away from the radical politics in which I thought I believed.  .  .

When I arrived at the Department of Education, Secretary Bell and his staff were in the process of finalizing a number of higher-education desegregation plans. Rather than focusing solely on increasing the percentage of blacks attending the previously all-white colleges and universities – the longtime goal of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund – the department was trying to place more emphasis on upgrading historically black colleges. These two efforts, I saw at once, contradicted each other: as more black students started going to white schools, fewer would  be available to attend black schools. The leaders of the historically black colleges had privately warned us that the Defense Fund was undermining their attempts to keep these schools afloat. I didn’t believe in supporting black colleges  that did a poor job educating their students, but I couldn’t see why they should be forced to close their doors in the name of a theory of racial integration that would force blacks to be permanent minorities  on predominantly white campuses. To impose mandatory integration policies similar to the ones that had been used in primary and secondary schools seemed to me short-sighted and misguided. My experiences at Holy Cross and Yale Law School had shown me that this approach was no panacea for the problem of black education. Moreover, the historically black colleges and universities had their own traditions, as well as a track record of success .Why, then, wasn’t it enough to upgrade them to the same level of quality as the predominantly white institutions, then let black students decide for themselves which kind of schools would suit them best?

By the time I joined the Board of Trustees at Holy Cross in 1978, very few of the black students graduated at the top of their classes and the attrition rate for blacks at predominantly white colleges and universities throughout America was disturbingly high. Almost half failed to graduate on time, if at all. Nor was we enough attention being paid to the kinds of courses these students were taking, very few studied math, science or engineering. To ignore these unpalatable facts was to missed the whole point of higher education. Merely to enroll a black in a predominantly white college means nothing,. What matters most is what happens next. An education is meaningless unless equips students to have a better life.

In one of my early staff meetings, I asked to see any studies that compared the academic performance of black students in integrated primary and secondary schools with black students in segregated or predominantly black schools. None was forthcoming, and when I pursued the matter, a staffer told me that none existed.

Alone in my office one evening, I rad through the existing reports on the course work and discipline rates for students in integrated schools. They all said the same thing: black students were far less likely by far to enroll in the more challenging courses and more likely to have discipline problems. How could they be expected to learn when they weren’t even taking the right classes? The data also made it clear that black males were dropping out of high school at an alarming rate, and those that remained rarely did well academically. To me the data spelled doom for blacks in America – but I knew that nothing I could do or say about the situation would be heard over the din  of dogmatic racial politics. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. Members of my race were caught in a cruel trap not of their own making. My own life seemed to be damaged in away I didn’t know how  to repair. It was more than I could take. I sat at my desk and wept.

Part of what overwhelmed me was the knowledge that the disease of blind dogma afflicted both parties.  .  .

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