XII: Affirmative Reaction

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Obama and McCain have another issue to spar over: affirmative action, that old liberal chestnut and conservative bugbear dealing with access, opportunity, standards, merit, values, historic racism and present-day opportunity, or the lack thereof. No one blog can capture all the fun stuff in this debate, so I want to start from a different angle. It’s a college story about the time a group of us guys got invited to meet a bunch of alumni at the Union Club here in NYC. There were about fifty of us, all class officers and fraternity presidents and team captains. Oh yeah! We weren’t just all white, we were mostly Protestants, with a few Catholics, too. You know, people who already knew how to use all that silverware without having to ask.

I was psyched when the embossed invitation arrived in the college mail, creamy white with a touch of burgundy in the lettering. Classy! Having vague aspirations for political office some day, I could tell by the texture of the card that I was on my way, heading on up. I was going to mix and mingle with important alumni, the men who gave enough money to have wings of buildings named after them. Ever solicitous, the College even chartered a bus for us to take. After all, one of the Assistant Deans confided in me, we might get tipsy around all that power. Laughing, he slapped my back just a little too hard. I got the code right away: we could drink with the big boys, too.

We arrived on a frosty February evening for cocktail hour, six-thirty sharp. The alums were already there, a warm, insular glow emanating out from them as they stood around, enjoying their own good time too much to make room for us. We stood there for a while, a few brave souls heading to the bar. I joined them, happy to get a whiskey sour in my sweaty hand. Awkwardness seemed part of the deal, giving way to relief as a few of the men turned and offered handshakes all around. Their grips were solid, strong, firm enough for a wince now and again. I knew enough not to let the wince show.

Quick intros all around, complete with bona fides: class president…grew up in Connecticut, no, not near Darien, the other end of the state…father…father? Oh, in the construction industry…Wow, you’re in insurance? President, no, CEO?...I see, and you’re Vice President of Marketing in New York? The Bon-Ami account…yessir, I know BonAmi…

Conversation quickly reverted back to the adults in each circle. As my discomfort grew, my vision became narrower, almost predatory in its vigilance. I can remember no one from that night, even fellow students. Oddly, the older men became faceless, but their clothes did not. I had never seen suits of such quality, their richness of color and tapered fit almost jarring to my Robert Hall eyes. The sparkle of the tie pins and cuff links was golden enough to dazzle as much as it dazed. I was someplace where I had never been before.

Drinks and canapés were silently offered by older, light-skinned African Americans with military bearing and immaculate white gloves who effortlessly moved through the room, stealth-like in their unbending service. Talk returned to banter, banter to jokes, jokes to rehearsed stand-up routines that had been played out before, minus the laugh track. Standing there for a while, new drink quickly drained, I began to be aware of the rules at play:
• Be happy you’re here.
• Smile a lot and say little.
• Know when to nod and when to simply look attentive
• Laugh at just the right moments, especially when the jokes included words
like “nigger” and “kike.”
o Don’t notice there are people in the room who may not find the jokes
very funny.
o Make sure similar jokes build on the jolly mood all around.
• When seated, reveal your class by using the right utensils for all five courses.
• Take the business cards offered at the end of the meal so you could follow up
for summer work.
• Repeat all of the above, as often as it takes, to get where you fully expect to
go.
• Reiterate that none of this is exaggerated.

I wouldn’t repeat any of it. Some of it was because of the obvious racism and anti-Semitism, of course. Some of it was the elitism. My mother didn’t like snobs and those who thought they were “better than,” and I didn’t either; my father, ever awkward around higher-ups, passed the same along to me. That night, it began to become clear that more of my life would be spent fighting those guys rather than joining them. Between my dawning political awareness and entrenched personal discomfort around authority, I wouldn’t be suited for board rooms for a long, long time.

I remember that crisp, cold winter evening as if it were yesterday, the disarray of my dashed hopes for career mobility leaving me uneasy and afraid for a long while after. The ease of affirmation and entry into an elite club of power and prestige that had been handed me that night was not because of great, consistent merit, beyond election to a student office, as terrific as that was (and damn, it was!). That such a slim reed of success was all I needed for entry into a rarefied world speaks volumes about what the struggle for affirmative action is addressing. I may have been class president, but I still got mostly C’s in school, had had mediocre College Board scores, and had never held a job for more than six months. One jolt of success, combined with my New England lineage, was enough for action to be taken, affirming where I belonged.

That I reacted otherwise began my journey to the shores of Our America where I now find myself. It’s a very prestigious place. We work out the rules together.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 27, 2008 9:00 AM.

XI: Black Genies, White Bottles was the previous entry in this blog.

Let’s Hear It for Sarah Palen! is the next entry in this blog.

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