Double reverse

Scholarship program for whites becomes a test of preferences

By June Kronholz

The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A few years ago, a federal judge concluded that Alabama’s state universities still were largely segregated and ordered them to do more to bring diversity to their campuses.

That’s how it happens that Jessie Thompkins, a black man who grew up attending segregated schools, is suing Alabama State University, a historically black university that was founded by freed slaves, over its $1 million-a-year scholarship program. A program, as it turns out, that is open only to whites.

To Mr. Thompkins, the issue is a simple one: “They said I have to be white and I can’t be.” But as the courts and public opinion force affirmative action into steady retreat, America’s dialogue about preferences is anything but simple. It ricochets from the inviolability of merit to the benefits of diversity, and from the desire to right old wrongs to the fear of creating new ones.

In Washington state, a white woman who comes from a one-parent household, worked her way through community college and earned a master’s degree sued when she says she was denied a place in law school because preferential admission was given to blacks. But in California and Texas, minority applications and admissions to law school have plummeted since preferences were ended this fall; new classes suddenly are overwhelmingly white.

In Prince George’s County, Md., black parents are suing the school district because it reserves seats, at magnet schools with a majority of black students, for white children. In Buffalo, white parents are suing the school district because it reserves seats, at an honors school that already has a lot of white students, for black children.

It’s illegal for a university that gets public funding to discriminate by race. But what about historically black public universities, which have been an avenue to success for generations of African-Americans? Can they be required to integrate themselves out of their historical mission? That, in part, is at issue in lawsuits in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.

Indeed, few cases put affirmative action in as stark a light as does the Jessie Thompkins case. In a state where “whites only” signs hung over public facilities only a few decades ago, a whites-only scholarship turns history on its head. “It’s strange,” says Mr. Thompkins. “You have a historically black institution giving scholarships to whites to remedy discrimination.”

The remedy that Mr. Thompkins is challenging had its start in 1981, when Clarence Thomas — then at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and now a leading opponent of affirmative action on the Supreme Court — concluded after a long investigation that “vestiges” of segregation remained at the state’s universities. Almost no one was surprised.

In 1963, Alabama’s flagship university, the University of Alabama, was integrated with the help of federal troops in one of the most dramatic confrontations of the civil-rights movement. But two decades later, the state’s 13 historically white public universities still were largely white — and continued to house the state’s professional schools and most of its graduate programs. The two historically black universities still were overwhelmingly black.

In 1985, with the support of the Justice Department, a group of Alabama State students sued Alabama in an effort to force it to devote more money, and to direct new programs, to the black schools. After a decade of litigation, a federal judge did that and more: In an effort to attract more whites to Alabama State and Alabama A&M University, the judge ordered each to spend $1 million a year in new state funding on scholarships for whites.

A General Accounting Office study in 1994 found that, nationwide, about 5% of all undergraduate grants were so-called minority-targeted or race-exclusive scholarships. But almost always, the race has been African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander or Native American — not white.

Alabama State was founded as Abraham Lincoln Normal School in 1867 for training black teachers, and for the first 100 years of its existence, it was prevented by state law from enrolling whites. But more than that kept the school segregated: It wasn’t accredited until 1966, it offered only one master’s-degree program, and it was chronically short of money.

Alabama State was convinced that its future depended on enrolling more whites — otherwise, it risked a merger with a nearby historically white campus — so it decided to make the scholarship program even broader than that ordered by the court. It added $229,000 of its own money, and offered scholarships even to out-of-state white students. In the 1996-1997 school year, after a year of struggling to get the program running, the university awarded 40% of its budget for academic grants to whites. That provided for 671 scholarships — one for almost every white on the campus of 5,419 students.

Mr. Thompkins, who is 38 years old, wasn’t even born yet when Rosa Parks made Montgomery the epicenter of the civil-rights movement in 1956 by refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery bus. Still, he speaks of growing up in fear of the Ku Klux Klan; of the racial ugliness that accompanied the integration of Alabama’s high schools; of the time his family fled their home in Marion, Ala., because of tensions over a visit to town by Ralph Abernathy, the civil-rights leader.

Small and wiry, Mr. Thompkins had the fastest time in the nation among high-school hurdlers in the 400-meters in his senior year, and went on to the University of South Alabama, a predominantly white college, on an athletic scholarship. In 1991 — after graduating from South Alabama, getting a master’s degree in sports coaching, running on the track team of a gym-shoe manufacturer, and student teaching for a year — Mr. Thompkins enrolled in Alabama State’s graduate program in education.

The university gave him graduate assistantships for three years and promised him, he says, that the scholarship would continue until he graduated. When he went to apply for the grant in 1995, though, Mr. Thompkins says he was told the only scholarships available were reserved for whites. His recollection of the incident: “I said, `Ma’am?’ She said, `You can apply, but you won’t get it.’ I said, `Well!'”

Almost as galling, he says, was that the whites-only scholarships paid for tuition, books, fees, and room and board — about $6,400 a year — and also included $900 a year for “incidentals.” In return for his grants, which varied from $3,500 to $5,000 a year, Mr. Thompkins says he helped coach the university track teams and clerked at the school tennis courts.

To qualify for some of the white scholarships, moreover, students need only a C average, and don’t even necessarily have to have a high-school diploma; a GED certificate, for General Education Development, is acceptable, too. Brandon Tanksley II, editor of the university newspaper, talks of campus disquiet over the scholarships with the very words that conservatives are using to decry affirmative action at predominantly white universities. “It’s not that they’re minority students,” — by which he means whites” — it’s that they’re not competitive,” says Mr. Tanksley.

William Hamilton Harris, the president of Alabama State, won’t talk about Mr. Thompkins’ scholarship applications except to say that “he has had more scholarships than anybody, ever, in the history of Alabama State.” (A lawyer for Mr. Thompkins says, “That doesn’t matter. He was denied this scholarship because of his race.”) And the academic qualifications of the whites is irreproachable, he adds. The university even hints it may compare the grades of its white and black students in court.

Without a scholarship, Mr. Thompkins dropped out of school in 1995 and took a job sorting packages at United Parcel Service to support his wife and four young sons. In 1996 and 1997, he returned as a part-time student, applied for scholarships again, and again was rejected. A dozen black lawyers whom he contacted about filing a discrimination case all had been involved in the 1985 suit that ultimately produced the whites-only scholarships, and they turned him away because of conflicts of interest, he says.

Last summer, the Center for Individual Rights finally filed a suit on his behalf and three other Alabama State students. The conservative law group earlier forced the University of Texas law school to drop racial preferences in its admissions; it also filed the University of Washington case and a similar challenge to affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Mr. Thompkins compares himself to Cheryl Hopwood, the plaintiff in the Texas case, even though she was a white woman seeking admission to a predominantly white school. “We were bumped aside, regardless of our qualifications, because of our race,” he says.

Alabama State’s president, Mr. Harris, agrees with Mr. Thompkins on the irony of white scholarships in a state long given to black exclusion. “It’s a twist, a reversal,” he says. But any agreement he has with Mr. Thompkins ends there.

Tall and elegant, Mr. Harris is a historian, has written three books on blacks in the labor force, and served as the president of two other colleges before coming here. Even so, he talks of his fear of being stopped some night on a traffic violation and finding his reputation and academic standing subsumed by racial stereotype. “It’s still there in our country,” he says, that meanness about color.

Civil-rights groups suggest that a common thread in recent federal-court rulings on affirmative action is that three decades of such remedies as preferences and diversity plans have overcome prejudice in schools, in contracting and on the job, so now they can be abandoned. But Mr. Harris sees less progress toward racial equity than do the courts — “I grew up in a segregated era in the South; I know,” he says. He argues that if the country needs doctors and lawyers of every race, then it also needs affirmative action to help some of them get there.

No small part of his resolve to defend the white scholarships is the fear that if they are ruled unlawful, then minority scholarships at other schools could be vulnerable, too. “The need for set-asides for blacks hasn’t run its course,” he says. But there are other, subtler benefits of the grants: Bringing whites and blacks together on campus “will broaden the quality of education and the quality of life at Alabama State,” he says.

Joseph King, a white student, perhaps proves the point. After his florist shop burned down, he enrolled at Alabama State, wanting to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. Only after he had been admitted did he learn of the scholarships. He applied and got one, noting that “only a fool would turn down money.”

Mr. King, 34, graduated with a 3.98 grade-point average and now has applied for another scholarship to attend graduate school at Alabama State. “I made a lot of friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he says. He did his student teaching at an all-black elementary school, and if a job came open at another black school, well, “race doesn’t matter,” he says.

In his modest home just off the Alabama State campus, Mr. Thompkins clings to the same notion — that race doesn’t matter — to argue the other side of the affirmative-action debate. “We don’t need race-based quotas,” he says. “I don’t want anyone telling my children they’re the wrong color. If you want something, you work for it; you just work for it.”

Mr. Thompkins expects to graduate from Alabama State this spring as a specialist in education, the highest education degree the university offers. His case, tied up in motions, still is a long way from trial. Next, he says, he’s thinking of going to law school.