For Blacks at Georgetown, Subtle Indignities
Affirmative action is raising tensions between minorities and whites at many US college campuses. Part 2 of 2.
WASHINGTON — SCHUYLA GOODSON walked into a law class one day and noticed that white students had brought civil-procedure charts to help them through the session. None of the minority students had one, including Ms. Goodson, who is black.
The charts were freely accessible in the library, she says, "but someone had to tell you, 'Hey, you need one of those.
Among some of the best and brightest at Georgetown University Law Center, black students recount disadvantages and indignities that are subtle, like missing out on the informal networks that pass tips about charts.
The vast majority of these students were born after the great battles against legal segregation had been won. The remaining obstacles are often more ambiguous, matters of nuance rather than of state troopers with billy clubs and whites-only restrooms.
They are also more invisible to whites.
"I think a lot of the resentment that whites have of affirmative action is not from racism, but because whites don't see racism as a barrier in society," says Joe Rand, a white law student here.
"Whites don't see racism," he adds, but they see scholarships targeted to minority students and affirmative-action efforts to include more blacks. "If they could be made to see there's not a level playing field," he says, "then they would understand."
For the past 15 years, Georgetown has had a black enrollment of between 10 and 13 percent of its student body - roughly the proportion of blacks in the US population.
But some black students still report a sort of culture shock on arrival.
"You walk into a class and you're the only one," Goodson says. "You feel the chill. Am I going to have to prove myself? Am I going to have to justify my existence?"
She has grown accustomed to sitting among students who knew how trust funds worked before law school because they had them, who grew up among lawyers and judges and "learned the language."
Many black Georgetown students, says 1986 alumni Conan Louis, believe professors can tell race in grading papers identified only by number "by syntax or style."
Whites can occasionally show the same concern. When a black District of Columbia appeals court judge taught a course here this year, he used a relaxed, colloquial manner in class. When students submitted critiques of the class, some asked whether he would be able to tell white exam papers from black and favor blacks. "I did not appreciate that," says Tanya Holcomb, a black student who was in the class.
For blacks, the playing field grows less level outside of law school. "A lot of firms, for whatever reason, are still reluctant to hire black lawyers," notes Michael Steele, a black student, who has found work after graduation. He recalls interviewing for a paralegal job by telephone, an interview that won him an enthusiastic invitation to visit the office. When he arrived, the interviewer seemed surprised.
"Oh, you're Mr. Steele. You're ... so tall," he recalls her saying. Unfortunately, she told him, the position had been filled.
Another student, Jay Hoover, who is white, also has a job lined up after graduation. But he marvels at the trouble some of his black colleagues are having - colleagues with similar grades, more-focused job searches, and better large-firm organization skills than his own.
"It's not overt racism," Mr. Hoover says, but rather an interviewer may think: "Will I be comfortable with this person as a colleague? Well, I don't know many blacks."
At school, the burden black students mention most is "justifying" their presence against the unspoken doubts of whites about their qualifications, and against the beleaguered state of much of the black community.
Linda Bishai, a student from Massachusetts, notes two general groups of blacks on campus those who just achieve" and easily assimilate into other groups, "then those who don't seem to get past race." Ms. Bishai has Egyptian ancestry and found, when she came to Washington, that blacks often mistake her for black. "They would call me 'sister, she says. "It felt strange. It just seemed so 'us against them.' "