Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Jeff Sessions will Learn from a Truly Honest Examination of University Admissions Policies

Affirmative Action and Angry White Men
By Leland Ware

Multiple media outlets report that the Trump administration is preparing to investigate university admissions programs that allegedly discriminate against white applicants. It is highly unlikely that the Justice Department would be able to find any such programs. The Supreme Court has affirmed the validity of affirmative action in every case that has come before it. In the first case, Board of Regents v. Bakke, the Supreme Court approved the constitutional validity of affirmative action with the caveat that numerical quotas could not be used to promote student body diversity.

Decades later in Grutter v. Bollinger the Supreme Court affirmed the validity of affirmative action admissions at the University of Michigan’s law school. In three more recent cases involving the University of Texas, the Court reaffirmed the validity of policies in which race was considered to enhance student body diversity. The bottom line is that race can be one among several considerations when minorities are underrepresented in a university’s student body.

The Supreme Court has made clear in case after case that race can be a factor, but it cannot be the predominant or motivating factor. The Justice Department is not likely to find any schools in which race is the primary factor in admissions decisions. There have been too many cases, too many academic journal articles, and too many professional conferences to assume colleges and universities do not know the rules.

Individuals involved in the process know how affirmative action works; what is permitted and what is not.  Most schools use a “holistic” approach to admissions, which involves a “full file” review of individual applications. Admissions decisions are not a mechanical, by-the-numbers process.  That approach was struck down in Gratz v. Bollinger.  Admissions Committees consider a number of factors including standardized test scores, grade point averages and academic recommendations. There are several other factors that come into play. These include, among other considerations, musical talent, athletic ability, legacies and the sons and daughters of wealthy donors.

The widely held belief that grades and test scores are the only considerations is not accurate.  Most schools have a set of “automatic admits” for the students with the strongest academic records. At the other end are automatic denials for students with the weakest records. The vast majority of the students fall into the middle range. Their academic records indicate that they can succeed as students. The question is who among them should be selected for the limited number of seats that are available. That is where the softer, more subjective considerations come into play. 

The irony of the claims of “reverse discrimination” is that no individual applicant can prove that he or she would have been admitted but for minority students who were admitted with lower grades and test scores. The white students who sued Michigan and Texas found there were other white applicants who were admitted with lower grades and test scores than theirs.  Numbers do not tell me entire story. This is what Attorney General Sessions will learn when he moves beyond his unfounded assumptions. Sessions’ plans are merely pandering to those in Trump’s base. These are whites who believe that people like them have been passed over for a position or promotion in favor of a less-qualified minority. This is the sort of racial resentment that propelled Trump’s election.  

Seventy years ago the Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. It has the responsibility of upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Sessions’ plan to subvert the mission of the Civil Rights Division to appease angry white men is a sad commentary on the state of the nation.

Leland Ware is Louis L. Redding Professor of Law, University of Delaware.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Elmore Nickelberry: 53 Years on a Memphis Garbage Truck

By: Harold Michael Harvey

Elmore Nickelberry
In 1964 Elmore Nickelberry was 32 years old. He was the father of five children.  He was a hero of sorts, but no one knew it or if they did know it, they gave him no recognition for his sacrifice and service to his country.

That year, Nickelberry was discharged from the United States Army, where he had served in the early stages of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. His release was bitter sweet.

On the one hand he was released from his tour of duty as President Lyndon Johnson was preparing to escalate America's involvement in Southeast Asia. But in 1964 he was unemployed and had to find a way to support his family back home in Memphis, Tennessee without the benefit of his Army wages.

It was hard for a Black man to find work, meaningful or otherwise in Memphis in the 1960s. Nickelberry found two menial part time jobs which required him to work during the night hours. He was constantly seeking a daytime job to replace the two part time jobs he had.

Each morning after completing his shift on the second part time job, Nickelberry would look for a full time job with day hours. The Memphis Sanitation Department had full time jobs that he could work during the day. The work conditions were very filthy; it was hard labor and demeaning to the honor and dignity of a military hero.

Nevertheless, Nickelberry sought a job with the Memphis Sanitation Department as a garbage man. At the very least the job would allow him to be at home with his family at night so that he could offer his family the protection that he had rendered to Vietnamese families during his tour of duty.

The problem with this idea was that Memphis had about as many Negroes as it wanted to pay on its sanitation trucks and they were not in any hurry to hire anymore Negroes to pick up garbage in the city. The department was content with working the ones they had very hard.

For a period of  two weeks Nickelberry would leave his second job every day and go to stand in a line with other Negro men in front of the sanitation department office seeking a chance to apply for a job to pick up garbage on the side of streets made famous by W. C. Handy, Elvis and B. B. King.

With Bernard Lafayette
"It would get hot out there," Nickelberry said recently at the Peabody Hotel where he was the guest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during their 59th National Convention.

"It was hot out there. I was tired and I got hungry, but I stood in that line. I was used to standing in formation from the Army, so it was not a big problem for me to do. Then one day a white fellow came out of the office," he said.

"Boy, you been standing out here for two weeks, aint you," the white fellow queried?"

"Yes sir, I sure have," Nickelberry said to the sanitation employee.

"Come over here, I think I can find a job for you," the staffer said.

The next day, Nickelberry was on the back of a garbage truck, jumping off to pick up garbage cans and dump them into the truck and jumping back on the truck for the next stop.

The job was as bad as it looks from the to any reasonable observer: sweaty, stinky, low paying, unsanitary; and supervised by a mean spirited white boss.

By the time that Nickleberry had spent four years on the job, Black sanitation workers had become increasingly vocal in expressing concerns about theire working conditions. It was now 1968, and the only job a Black man could get in the Sanitation Department was on the back of the truck. There were no white garbage men working with Black crews. However, all of the garbage truck drivers were white.

On February 1, 1968 two sanitation workers were accidentally killed on a sanitation truck. Their deaths led sanitation workers to organize for better working conditions.

First and foremost these workers wanted to be treated like the grown men that they were; as evidenced by the protest posters they carried during the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike: "I Am A Man,"  one placard proudly pronounced.

Nickelberry joined the picket line and endured the wrath of Mayor Henry Loeb, III, an avowed segregationist, and the sanitation department managers. When Loeb refused to negotiate with the sanitation strikers they struck, bringing a halt to garbage collection in the city.

The strike was supported by both Roy Wilkins, President of the National Association of Colored People and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King had never become involved in a labor dispute, and many of his confidants advised him against getting involved with the sanitation strike. We know the rest of this story. King did travel to Memphis. He got in the middle of this labor war. He was gunned down outside of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

Twelve days after King was murdered, Loeb met with the sanitation workers and conceded to their core demands for better working conditions, recognition of the union and a pay raise.

Following the strike, Nickelberry went back to work on the back of the sanitation truck. Today Nickelberry is 85 years old, and every work day since the strike ended in '68, he has been on a Memphis Sanitation truck. The only difference is he now works as a driver.

"Dr. King gave his life for that strike, did he die in vain," he was asked?

"Many things have changed, but there are a lot more things that need to change," he said after a reflective moment.

"How much longer are you going to work," a reporter asked Nickelberry during the SCLC conference.

"Oh, I don't know. I may retire next year. It'll be 50 years since the strike," he said.

"You have worked this long, what are you going to do in retirement," he was asked.

"I'll probably buy me a wide brimmed hat, a pair of brogan shoes and travel out to California and do some fishing in the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com