Last weekend, I decided to binge watch the classic sitcom Good Times on TV One, but due to a child’s birthday party and Christmas play rehearsals, all of that TV watching was interrupted. Still, I managed to catch a few more episodes on Sunday night. One in particular, “The IQ Test,” which aired in the dark ages of 1974, was worth the wait.
In it, the youngest son of Florida and James Evans, the black power-minded Michael, refuses to take the school-administered IQ test because he feels the inherent assumptions of the test and its creators make it impossible for black students to perform well. Florida and James, of course, scold their son for being rebellious. But later, following a confrontation with the school administrator, a calculator-cuddling, number-crunching fool, Michael’s suspicions are confirmed. Sadly, this story is still relevant today.
Now listen, I don’t pretend to understand what goes on in the mind of a lawyer, but I couldn’t believe it when I read that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said blacks are better off attending “less-advanced” and “slower-tracked” colleges because they aren’t ready for the rigors of top-tier universities. Statements like that stink, and not just because they’ve been debunked time and time again. I’ve been challenging similar assumptions all my life, and I know first-hand what affirmative action can do for black students.
When I was in high school, I wanted to take an AP English class, but the teacher thought very little of my capabilities. The teacher explained rather brusquely that black people don’t do well in AP classes, so I should take something else. Hmm.
Well, this ol’ gal had some moxie back then. I refused her recommendation to take something else and worked my pecan-brown behind off because I was determined to prove her wrong. Once it became clear that I could compete, the hostility directed toward me abated a bit. That class was pivotal for me and provided a rich foundation that continues to be a blessing.
Four years later, another assuming instructor nearly derailed me. This professor was a smart, salty, old dog, and I loved hearing about his global adventures. In fact, the time I spent in his class whet my appetite for a career in government. After the final exam of the semester, we talked about my future and job options. Without hesitating I announced my goal to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. When I said that, the professor’s already withered face sank. Nearly 30 years later, I can still hear his words: “Toby, you’re a nice girl, but you won’t get in. They only take the best and the brightest. You should go somewhere else.” Hmm.
I remember muttering something — no, I didn’t cuss the man — but I wasn’t going to share my tears either. I quickly turned and walked away. As I made my way across the University of South Carolina campus, I saw a growing crowd. Who were all those people and why were they so dressed up? Friends, I had forgotten it was college recruiting day.
I stopped crying immediately, put on some lipstick, and picked up my pace. The very first booth that I walked into was, yep, the CIA. The recruiter was a tall, handsome brother named Avon Harding. He was so kind to me and listened to my story through another round of tears. “I’m sorry that happened,” he said, “but don’t worry about it. Take this application home and we’ll be ready for you by January.” Being naïve is a lovely thing: I did the whole thing in pencil that weekend and wrote an essay about the changing face of China.
Fourteen months after that encounter with Mr. Harding, this daughter of slaves, just five generations away on Mom’s side, got out of a cab and walked into one of America’s most elite government agencies to begin a great career. Had it not been for Avon Harding and the CIA’s affirmative action policy, I wouldn’t have seen the inside of that building.
I know times have changed. Some of us have moved on up. Some of us live in gated communities. Some of us on secluded islands. But do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that things are really equal across the board? Oh wait, try the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise. You might find equality in there. But when you exit, equality will still be an elusive ideal just out of reach. Black people are still fighting for equal opportunities, and I suspect we always will be.
A few years ago, while working on my second and (still unpublished) book, I tried to find Mr. Harding. I was unable to. Just before entering the race for mayor of Charleston, I tried to find him again. I wanted to tell him about all the great things that had happened in my professional life. I wanted him to know how much that single meeting had changed the trajectory of my future. Had he not been there to redirect, my path would have been dramatically different. Because of the foundation that I received, I was in a position to run, as the first black woman, for mayor of one of America’s most beloved cities. Unfortunately, by the time I tracked him down he had passed away, but not before leaving behind an amazing legacy of love and service.
Friends, change is coming, and if it’s aimed at tearing up the blood-bought progress of the past, then stories like mine will disappear. It’s not enough that my journey has been great — great journeys must become the norm across the board. But in order for that to happen, the erroneous assumptions shared by Judge Scalia and others about the capabilities of black people must be erased. We aren’t there yet.