'Filing/Complexities' by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
Filing/Complexities, by Jim Davis-Rosenthal, 1999.

 

 

KEEPING UP WITH AFFIRMATIVE ACTION:
The Vantage Grounds
of the Top Ten Percent
and the "Talented Tenth"

 

At a conference hosted last March by Stanford University, panels of Stanford scholars and faculty from eight other universities participated in a 2-day round-table discussion of the ongoing issues of race and education in the United States today. Not surprisingly, speakers drew sound applause for their remarks in favor of continued efforts to desegregate communities and campuses through education. How that might be achieved, however, was a matter of more diverse discussion.

For students and scholars of cultural history, one of the perhaps noteworthy plans of action comes from Ricardo Romo, vice provost of the University of Texas at Austin and newly named president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. According to a report on the conference in @ Stanford: A Monthly Newsletter of Campus News, Research, and Events, Romo expressed favor for the following new admissions plan:


Texas, he said, adopted a five-year plan as a result of then-governor Anne Richards' insistence on increasing minority enrollment at the state's two public flagship institutions. Romo said the plan addressed the reality that although the state had the fastest growing population of Latinos and African Americans, outside of California, fewer than half of high school graduates were taking SAT tests for university admission.

Under the "top 10 percent plan," high school graduates who place in the top 10 percent of their class are now automatically admitted to the state's public universities, whether or not they have taken SATs. "I think it's working," Romo said, "and we are now in a position to hold back the 'brain drain.'"


In pondering this allegiance to the "top 10 percent plan," readers familiar with the seminal works of African American scholar and critic W.E.B. Du Bois may readily recall the portion of Du Bois' The Negro Problem focusing on "The Talented Tenth":


The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. ... And so we come to the present — a day of cowardice and vacillation, of strindent wide-voiced wrong and faint hearted compromise; of double-faced dallying with Truth and Right. Who are today guiding the work of the Negro people? The "exceptions" of course. And yet so sure as this Talented Tenth is pointed out, the blind worshippers of the Average cry out in alarm: "They are exceptions, look here at death, disease and crime — these are the happy rule." Of course they are the rule, because a silly nation made them the rule: Because for three long centuries this people lynched Negroes who dared to be brave, raped Black women who dared to be virtuous, crushed dark-hued youth who dared to be ambitious, and encouraged and made to flourish servility and lewdness and apathy. ...

Was there ever a nation on God's fair earth civilized from the bottom up? Never; it is, was, and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress; and the the two historical mistakes which have hindered that progress were the thinking first that no more could ever rise save the few already risen; or second, that it would better the unrisen pull the risen down.

How then shall the leaders of a struggling people be trained and the hands of the risen strenghthened? There can be but one answer: The best and most capable of their youth must be schooled in the colleges and universities of the land. We will not quarrel as to just what the university of the Negro should teach or how it should teach it — I willingly admit that each soul and each race-soul needs its own peculiar curriculum. But this is true: A university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation, through the training of quick minds and pure hearts, and for this work no other human invention will suffice, not even trade and industrial schools.

All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have for the talented few centers of training where men are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies, and no God greater than Gold.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth," excerpted from The Negro Problem (1903)


In a move akin to the new policy in Texas, California Governor Gray Davis last year endorsed a controversial plan to increase diversity in the state's elite UC system by admitting the top 4 percent of every high school graduating class. Supporters say the plan would allow more African American, Hispanic/Latino and poor white students to earn admission and would counter the effects of Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that banned affirmative action in California. Opponents say that automatically admitting a percentage of students from poor-performing high schools would deny admission to many high-achieving students elsewhere.

More recently, Miami Gov. Jeb Bush was received with little tolerance, when he entered a public hearing, on February 3rd of this year, to discuss his plan to end affirmative action in state university admissions and contracts. The public hearings were called in January, after two legislators staged a sit-in in Bush's office. Bush agreed to delay his order ending affirmative action until the plan was subjected to public hearings: in brief, the Miami governor's plan would guarantee university admissions to the top 20 percent of each high school's graduating class and use other factors besides race — such as socioeconomic status — to determine who else would be admitted.

The 5,000-seat Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in Miami was filled to capacity with angry citizens, throughout the eight-hour event. The topic, from the crowd, was a resounding demand that Bush drop his plan to end government set-aside programs for minorities and women.

"This has been a difficult time for me," the Republican governor, the Associated Press reported. "The last two weeks I have carried a heavy heart around."

In response, U.S. Representative Carrie Meek (D-Fla.), told the crowd, "The pain the governor feels is a self-inflicted wound." Meek added that she doubted the governor's plan would stimulate diversity goals.

Are these new university admissions plans in the states of Texas, California, and Florida fostering a new version of strengthening "The Talented Tenth" from among students of color who might otherwise not apply for university studies? The Texas universities effected this plan after reviewing statistics which showed that, although the state had the fastest growing population of Latinos and African Americans, outside of California, fewer than half of high school graduates were taking SAT tests for university admission. Is this affirmative action? Proactive? Or simply reactive? And how do these changing policies affect "other" groups, no longer sanctioned as "target minorities," such as Asians? As always, we welcome comments from our readers.

For more information on the Stanford conference, visit the @ Stanford review online.

 

 


 

Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Talented Tenth" from Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African American Writing, edited and with and introduction by Deirdre Mullane. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1993.

 

 

Text © 2000 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo

Original Graphic Image, "Filing/Complexities" © 1999 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal


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