How my experience with affirmative action guides this truth: We should build human bridges, not cling to race walls

What can be said in the wake of the shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina? Not much, and most of it happens internally in the speechlessness such tragedies prompt. Prayers. Deep thoughts of condolence for the families and communities involved. Acknowledgement that, race-related or otherwise, mass shootings are a cancer in our society.

But this one was race-related and happened at a time when the race discussion in our country has necessarily escalated in response to the treatment of blacks by police, and criminal justice and corrections entities. Look at the continued inequities in economic and educational opportunities for black Americans and Americans of all colors.

Where does the discussion go from here? Maybe the inspiration can come from the nine victims themselves.

They were obviously kind, loving people who died acting affirmatively. They died welcoming a stranger into their midst, having no fear of the possibility that this stranger was consumed by hate. They acted out of faith instead of fear — the faith that acting affirmatively is exactly what people need to do to conquer hate.

They offered the stranger a human bridge instead of a race wall. Unknowingly, they offered the power of coming together to the face of destructiveness. Their sacrifice calls on us to do the same. Fear, mistrust, anger and hate are natural responses, but they are responses that only get us more of the same.

In memory of the victims, we need to act affirmatively. Maybe an Internet savvy soul could come up with a way for people to robo-tweet and robo-email daily messages to federal and state officials demanding funded policy and practice change, demanding equity in educational and economic opportunity, demanding equity in believing in the American dream.

Someone should get John Oliver to start the movement. He showed the power of such actions when he called on viewers to flood the FCC website during the net neutrality debate. Viewers crashed the site and are credited with forcing the FCC to change its position and ultimately decide on the side of neutrality.

Imagine using that force to make changes that could begin to heal race wounds once and for all.

Acting affirmatively may require rethinking the policy of affirmative action — policy meant to level employment and educational playing fields. Our most racially inflamed urban areas, though, are full of youth that affirmative action has left behind. Poor youth of all colors also continue to get left behind.

I stated in a post that I am anti-affirmative action. Selfishly, I was thinking of my own experiences with it, but a friend read the post and contacted me to share his family’s experience. He explained that his white family had black friends, and in spite of living in the south, race never came up between the adults or the children.

He wrote of being moved to tears when trying to explain to his teenage son why he didn’t get into the same school his friends were accepted to, even though he was academically more qualified. His black friends had their choice of schools and better financial aid packages. How do you explain to that to a child raised to see all people as equals?

Why should he be held personally responsible for slavery and for social and economic policies put in place long before he was born?

My experiences were on the other side of that coin. Like the time I was admitted “early admit” to an Ivy League school during my senior year of high school. The school had an interest in me playing on their basketball team.

I was already having doubts before the African American studies and social club literature arrived in the mail. When I asked my contact what was up with that stuff, she told me it was in my best interest to participate in such activities. When I balked, she asked me how I thought I got accepted in the first place.

My grade point average was 0.7 below their minimum accepted average; I was known to be a little wild behaviorally and an underachiever academically; and did I understand what a quota was? She had invested a considerable amount of time recruiting me, and it was down to the wire in terms of getting me to sign.

Whatever the reason for her snapping and speaking so freely, the rebellion of adolescence snapped back. I said if I was part of meeting a quota, that made me a token, and I wanted none of it.

My mother still grimaces when she recounts the story to my children and anyone else who will listen when the subject of affirmative action comes up. She calls it “Patricia’s token nigger story” because that was what I yelled at my parents when they were vocalizing their disappointment in my decision.

In more recent years, the subject came up after I had interviewed for a part-time job. I really needed the money, but I was over-qualified. A couple weeks had passed since the interview, and I was panicking to a friend that I was worried I didn’t get the job. I told her that, as weird as it sounds, I had gotten every job I had ever interviewed for, and it would suck if this was the first one I didn’t get.

The words “every job I had ever interviewed for” echoed in my mind and troubled me. I asked my friend if she thought that fact had anything to do with affirmative action — I mean, that can’t be normal. She tried to assure me that I am capable and present well, blah, blah, blah. But I’ll never know for sure.

Change won’t happen if we insist on clinging to race walls instead of building human bridges. May the victims in Charleston inspire us all to act affirmatively on behalf of each other, to offer the power of coming together to conquer the destructiveness of division.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.