This musing is about how some things change, but unexplainably remain the same. I know…I know…I know, I have misstated the proverb, however, I promise to be a little clearer as I work through this musing; not necessarily more succinct – clearer. The year was 1977 – affirmative action was before the Supreme Court (Bakke v. Regents of University of California) – not the current debate over affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas), but the initial challenge. Bakke had just been argued (argued on October 12, 1977), and at a time the admission process at professional schools was underway. The process began at the University of Houston Law Center in October 1977. For the uninitiated the dictionary definition of affirmative action is not necessarily intellectually honest, “the practice of improving the educational and job opportunities of members of groups that have not been treated fairly in the past because of their race, sex, etc.” The debate has always been about race, period.
The University’s Admissions Committee consisted of the following persons: the Director of Admissions; four to five professors from the law center; three students, two of which were appointed by the Student Bar Association, and myself, appointed by the Black American Law Students Association (BALSA). I was also assigned to represent the interest of the Women Law Students Association (WLSA) and the Chicano Law Student Association (CLSA) (don’t ask how this happened, a far longer story). Some of the names I remember, others I do not. Remember, some things change – in this context – memory; some things remain the same – race – a continuing debate – generations later. Be clear, race is not why I muse, the admissions process is not why I muse; both however serve as vessels to convey my real concern. Please bear with me.
I need to provide a bit more information first. We, the students (Elaine Carpenter, Beatriz Gonzalez, and myself), conspired with Professor Yale Rosenberg to form a coalition (some of you will view this agreement as a conspiracy; I’m okay with the term). For those of you who worry about such admissions, and find yourself standing yelling at me to remain quiet, please calm down and keep reading. I have previously confessed my sins in a memoriam dedicated to Professor Rosenberg for the Houston Law Review in 2002.
Now back to our conspiracy: we established a set of goals, including increasing the number of females in the incoming class. We envisioned increasing the admission of females to at least fifty percent (of the incoming class), a heady goal at the time in that the female composition at the school was probably no greater than fifteen – twenty percent. We also had a goal of increasing the number of Hispanic and African American students for the incoming class. In light of Bakke still pending, we were forced to tread lightly on issues of race. The Supreme Court did not issue its decision in Bakke until June 27, 1978.
We, the Committee, were told that bonus points (the extra points increased these students chance for admission) were automatically given to applicants and graduates from certain institutions (The University of Texas, Rice University, any Ivy League school), but not to University of Houston graduates. I questioned why the University would engage in such an act of self-hate. Since I am doing a bad job of paraphrasing common expressions, let me try this one – “I didn’t know Jack Kennedy, however I grew up black. I know self-hate and this particular policy was institutionalized self-hate. I protested. They ignored – turning, turning, turning in the other direction as if no one spoke, as if silence now constituted sound. The preference remained; a perverse form of affirmative action, still a preference. We also learned of another preference which was granted to certain, not all, alumnus’ children.
To admit a student under the discretionary process, five votes were needed; it should be noted the vast majority of students were admitted through the discretionary admission process. My memory tells me the number was as high as ninety percent of the incoming class. Our coalition conspired to vote in a bloc, which meant with our numbers we couldn’t get you in the law school, but we could keep you out. I hope I am making sense – let me try explaining this differently – the other side needed at least one of us voting with them to admit their desired applicant. Such was the setting – race still mattered, coalitions worked when implemented right, politics still was politics – even in making decisions on who would be admitted in an institution of higher learning.
The admissions process started in October 1977. We did not fill the incoming class of 1978 until October/November 1978; six months after I had graduated from the law school; one month before starting practice in November 1978; four months after the Supreme Court had decided Bakke; a month and half after the new school year had started. A contentious and prolonged process allowed us to meet our goal with regards to women admitted, the number of Hispanic students in the incoming class was the largest ever for the school, and we were a little off on the number of African American students admitted. Our conspirators also were successful in admitting the University’s first openly transsexual applicant, whose application had been hidden from the rest of the Committee. After discovery of the buried file (with a note attached admitting the applicant was qualified to be admitted on numbers alone), we shut the process down for at least two months. The note identified the applicant as being transsexual and advised that the file should not be brought to the attention of the Committee. You can imagine the discussion which followed: threats of telling the world, including the applicant, the public. Sugar plum fairies dancing in the heads of the Administrators? – No, no, absolutely not. The Administrations instead agree to avoid a lawsuit, and the story which the press would have loved to have written. The overly qualified transsexual applicant was admitted without fanfare. There is a theme developing here: sometime change is painful, dramatic, and eye opening; most times it is slow, incremental, seemingly intractable, and immovable. There is a sub-theme also: our activities as students meant the institution/administrators/law professors taught us well. They had no one to blame but themselves for our appreciating the rule of law.
One last point in order to enhance an appreciation of time and place – The University of Houston Law Center was named Bates School of Law, then, not The University of Houston Law Center. I believe Mr. Bates hadn’t yet been arrested. A positive came out of Mr. Bates arrest? The University probably showed other institutions how to react to such adverse publicity, particularly when a namesake discredits him/herself/ the institution – they pulled Mr. Bates’, and heirs, pictures down – immediately – removed his name from the building – post-haste – and spent little time debating changing the letterhead. Little debate, far less in time in providing an explanation to the public, name gone, letterhead changed – done. Oh, how I have digressed.
Indira Gandhi served as the Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977; Golda Meir served was the Prime Minister for Israel from 1969 to 1974; Benizar Bhutto was the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, serving from 1971 to 1977. Elisabeth Domitien served in her nation’s highest position (Central Africa Republic) from 1975-1976, Margaret Thatcher (Great Britain) from 1979 to 1990, Dame Eugenia Charles (Dominica), from 1980 to 1995. While chronicling, don’t ignore Luisa Diogo (Mozambique), 2004 to 2010, Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica), 2006 to 2007, and Han Myeong-sook (South Korea), 2006-2007. Please, please don’t contend any of this is the relics of history. History’s present day gifts reveal that some of the current female office holders include Angela Merkel (Germany) (11 years as Chancellor); Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh) (7 years as Chancellor); Erna Solbert (Norway) (2 years as Prime Minister); Laimdota Straujuma (Latvia) (since 2014 as Prime Minister); Saara Kuugongelwa (Namibia) (since March 21, 2015); Beata Szydio (Poland) (since November 15, 2015, in the role of Prime Minister). Currently there are roughly twenty six (26) women around the world sitting at apex of power in their governments.
By Tentotwo [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Do the math – there have been roughly eighty four (84) elected or appointed heads of government who have been female; roughly eighty six (86) who have been elected or appointed heads of state; zéro, zilch, zip, nil, nought, nada, nothing, nichts, diddly-squat, sero, and goong represents the number of females in the land of the brave, home of the free. By any standard or analysis, even if I counted wrong, I think I got this one mathematical computation right. The nations which have had female heads of state includes most of the countries in South America, a good portion of Asia, Canada, Australia, a representative sample of the countries situated in Africa and Europe – shame on us, shame on us.
Babble, babble, babble …
I muse because I fundamentally believe we have to conspire to elect a female as the head of our government, not in someone else’s lifetime, in our lifetime. I believe this to the same extent as those conspirators who believed they could increase the numbers of females in the incoming classes in the professional schools in this country, holding strong, refusing to deviate from their blocs, no matter the argument, tradition, or creative reasoning of avoidance.
My belief in our failings is grounded in the same belief that our political system fails woefully when it comes to electing minority candidates, particularly the filling of judicial positions throughout the country. Even when minority candidates seek to fill the void, the expected conspiracy of like-minds dissipates – turning, turning – turning in the other direction. Creative arguments follow, challenges to qualification is a persistent argument, foes and friends join hands in opposition – even crossing party lines becomes acceptable behavior.
I muse not as a bitter, bitter man this time, even though I readily will accept any such misapplied label. I muse not to discuss the plight of minorities in the political process. My concern is the continual flight of logic, excuses, avoidance of our obligation – in assuring a robust participatory democracy, and obliterating our out-right sexism when it comes to addressing the void in the election of a woman to the highest office in land. This bitter, bitter man willingly admits there has been progress, absolutely. This bitter, bitter man still believes notwithstanding the admitted progress, zero still equals zero.
In the Friday, January 22, 2016, New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman [How Change Happens] wrote “There’s a sort of mini-dispute among Democrats over who can claim to be Mr. Obama’s true heir – Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton? But the answer is obvious: Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is heir to President Obama. (In fact, the health reform we got was basically her proposal, not his.).” But it seems to me that none of this matters if we babble, babble, babble away.
My youngest child told me that when her oldest saw President Obama for the first time on television (he was a mere four years old then), he exulted, “He looks like me!” We owe it to female young eyes the same exultation, the same conspiracy of like minds. And if you think I muse because of Democratic and Republican politics – you’ve missed my point. In recent history, we have elected a B-actor from Death Valley Days, who replaced a relatively unknown peanut farmer from Plains, and we even acquired a taste for the audaciousness of hope, electing a young, inexperienced, relatively unknown, Senator from Illinois, and before him we placed in the office a governor from a state with a population roughly one-third the size of the population of New York City, with land mass a little bit larger than some of the ranches in the southern part of Texas. And, of course, I haven’t made any mention of Texas’ wonderful contributions to our imperfect union. So don’t give me what we can’t do, or structure arguments based upon some undefined, unbending principle never applied to others – set aside the party politics argument for another generation. We got to do what we got to do – collectively conspiring to change history.