How Affirmative Action Affected My Life
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How Affirmative Action Affected My Life

I didn't receive anything I didn't deserve

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and race-based decisions, including affirmative action, were swirling around me. I don't know if affirmative action played a role in my attending University High in seventh grade. U-High was a private school on the edge of the campus of the University of Minnesota that covered grades 7–12. I wasn't involved in the household financial decisions related to tuition and how it was paid. I'll be attending my 50th high school reunion next month, and a few U-High students who might have recollections about scholarships and financial aid will be there.

In eighth grade, U-High merged with the public school Marshall High, two blocks away. The combined school became Marshall-University High School and, from my first day, had a limited number of Black students, many of them coming from U-High. I don't recollect school busing starting for a couple of years when Black kids were bussed from North Minneapolis. Any Black kids living in the less integrated South Minneapolis rode the city bus or got rides from family. A few kids lived close enough to walk.

I find little to differentiate affirmative action from desegregation, which was just beginning to take place in many areas in the late 1960s, although Brown v. Board of Education became law in 1954. The "With All Deliberate Speed" clause allowed school boards across the North and South to ignore the ruling that supposedly ended segregation. It took federal consent decrees to get America to budge, and Minneapolis was no exception.

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In kindergarten, I attended an almost all-Black elementary school, Grant Elementary, in North Minneapolis. Before I entered first grade, my family moved to South Minneapolis, and I went to Field Elementary. Until reading a staff report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on School Desegregation in Minneapolis, I had no idea that Field Elementary had just desegregated before I got there and how much depended on the results. Many white parents threatened to remove their children from school, but things died down when academic performance improved rather than decreased after the admission of Black children.


Early in my Marshall-University High years, I had my first known experience with affirmative action. I had joined a newly formed Boy Scout Troop based in a neighborhood white church. Our troop was all-Black with a Black scoutmaster named Mr. Walker. We had a relationship with a white Explorer program for older kids; some of their advisors worked with us. The National Jamboree in 1969 was to be held at Farragut State Park in Idaho. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) would be hosting scouts from all over the world, with many delegations more diverse than that from the United States.

There was a requirement that any scout attending had to achieve the rank of Star Scout, which was one rank above First Class. There were mandatory timeframes in place, slowing advancement between ranks, and as a new troop, none of our scouts had advanced beyond Second Class. There wasn't enough time for us to achieve Star Scout before the Jamboree. The BSA waived the time requirements for advancement, allowing a few of us to earn the required number of merit badges and meet all other requirements to achieve the rank. Other than advancing faster between ranks, we still had to meet every criterion for Star Scout. That meant learning to swim well enough to meet a First Class requirement that would have kept me from going.

Related: How the End of Affirmative Action in College Admissions Will Affect Black Students

The BSA had a voluntary affirmative action program that allowed Black kids to attend an event they otherwise would have missed. Along with fellow scout Ellery Carr, I took a train from Minnesota to Idaho, going through North Dakota and Montana. I met kids from around the world, traded patches, and sang songs with thousands of others at the amphitheater created for the event. There we watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. I can't adequately explain how that event changed my life, but it did, and I owe it to affirmative action.

Later in high school, affirmative action again affected my life. High school juniors took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which identified top students in preparation for college admissions. I finished in the 95th percentile in math and English, which put me on the radar of schools nationwide. I was a National Merit Semifinalist, which also identified students by race.

I did get some opportunities I likely would have missed. I got nothing I didn't deserve based on my intellect, desire, and perseverance.

Colleges that had never done so were now seeking qualified Black students to meet their newly established affirmative action goals. I got letters from hundreds of colleges and universities, many suggesting financial aid. None of my extended family members had completed college, but with their help, I selected an HBCU, Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. That decision ended up having nothing to do with affirmative action, but I had many options that otherwise wouldn't have been available to me.

Related: Don’t Let Me Hear You Say an HBCU Education Didn’t Prepare Me

The last known time affirmative action affected me was while a junior at Fisk. Procter & Gamble began recruiting interns at HBCUs as part of a voluntary affirmative action program. I was selected as an intern to work in outside sales within their Folger's Coffee Division in Cincinnati, Ohio. The summer before my senior year, I had a company car and worked in a territory in Ohio, giving me excellent preparation for the business world. When I graduated from Fisk, I accepted an outside sale position with Procter & Gamble in Jacksonville, Florida.

I'm sure my career was affected by other race-based decisions. When I left P&G, and went to Southern Bell, which was looking to professionalize its sales force. It probably helped that Southern Bell had been sued several times for racial discrimination. I was part of a joint venture with a major firm; my participation helped us receive a major contract with a city government. That experience helped me see how affirmative action was misused and that some beneficiaries weren't minorities at all.

One way to look at affirmative action is that it provided opportunities that otherwise wouldn't have been granted. Another is to look at it as a cap; this much and no more. I'll look deeper at the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action in colleges and universities, and you'll hear from me soon. I wanted to reflect on my experience. I did get some opportunities I likely would have missed. I got nothing I didn't deserve based on my intellect, desire, and perseverance. I caught a quote from Mike Pence saying that "maybe" affirmative action was needed 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, America was just beginning to implement Brown v. Board of Education; we still have a ways to go.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.