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Affirmative Action Triumphs:
The Untold Stories

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

Eva Jefferson Paterson

Eva Jefferson Paterson is Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, one of California's most brilliant attorneys. She is an African American and a beneficiary of affirmative action.

She recently told a personal, uplifting story to a crowd of 3,000 cheering University of California, Berkeley students.

"I got into Boalt Law School (U.C.Berkeley) through an affirmative action program, a program that gave me the opportunity to study law. (She was a classmate of Lance Ito). Affirmative action gave me an opportunity, but I cracked the books, did the work, and passed the tests."

Ms. Eva Paterson passed the bar exam on the first round. On her indefatigable speaking tours, she often gets applause and laughter when she mentions that Pete Wilson failed the bar exam twice. (He finally passed.)

"Never apologize for affirmative action," she tells the crowd, "I am proud of affirmative action because I am qualified."

Stories of hope abound

The Eva Paterson story is not unique. California is full of thousands of affirmative action triumphs -- stories of opportunity, realized potential, and achievement rarely told on the public airwaves.

When Pete Wilson launched his anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action campaign, no doubt he expected affirmative action beneficiaries would be cowed into hiding and silence.

How wrong Wilson was!

Not only are women and communities of color coming together, affirmative action beneficiaries and participants are speaking out in public. At long last we can listen to real people whose opportunities were expanded, whose own lives were enhanced, and whose humble communities were served, by affirmative action.

Antonia Hernandez

Antonia Hernandez, well-known defender of Latino rights, is president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Class-action suits, redistricting cases are some of her legal triumphs.

It was affirmative action that helped change the course of her life. Her family lived in Las Cruces and worked in the cotton fields, until her uncle brought the entire family to Los Angeles, "all crunched up" in an old Chevrolet.

"I was," she writes, "an immigrant kid out of East Los Angeles. Without affirmative action I would not have been an opportunity to so to UCLA and explore horizons that were never opened to my parents. Huppies - upwardly mobile Hispanics- do not acknowledge sometimes that affirmative action has opened doors for them. They feel uncomfortable with what they perceive as a negative tag. We need to openly say we are examples of the success of affirmative action.

"I am a kid out of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. I am a pretty bright individual, and I had decent grades. I was just dirt-poor. My parents lived in the projects and I dreamed of going to Cal State L.A., because it was just across the street. That is as far as my dreams would take me. I am sure that I was judged by standards other than just grades or test scores.. They saw in me a burning determination, the drive, the willingness to work. They gave me a break, but I am not the only one. It happened to thousands of Latinos who went to medical school, to architectural school."

Were public standards lowered to make room for Antonia Hernandez? Or was the public, that pays for the University system, better-served by giving her an opportunity?

Standards were not lowered, Ms. Hernandez says. "That is the beauty of affirmative action. It gives the flexibility to find new standards that are more relevant, more current, taking into account our past and present history of exclusion." Universities enable individuals to build personal careers. But public universities also serve a larger public purpose. Improving legal services in the Hispanic communities is a noble goal.

Ronald W. Johnson

Ronald W. Johnson is director of financial aid at U.C.L.A. He worked 15 years at U.C. Davis. As a young African American he came to California from Brooklyn, New York. And he has dedicated the last 21 years of his life to higher education.

"I know for certain," he writes, "that were it not for affirmative action, many doors would have been closed. "My accomplishments weren't given to me because of who I knew, or who my father knew. They weren't handed to me because of how well I played sports. I earned my accomplishments through hard work, integrity and intelligence. But I knew I had a lot to be thankful for, most of which were the many doors of opportunity that opened for me to show my attributes . ...

"I know that all of my qualifications have nothing to do with my race, but rather with who I am as a person. But what if I had never had the opportunity to show others my skills to manage? What if I had never had the opportunity to show others my ability to lead? My future, and the future of those lives I have touched, would never be realized. Whether it's due to racism, closed doors, or perhaps the non-existence of affirmative action, the results would have been the same - lack of opportunity."

Albert Vetre Lannon

Affirmative action programs are not unique to women and people of color. White males are beneficiaries of many types of special programs, including programs that make exceptions to strict meritocracy. Albert Vetere Lannon lives in San Francisco. He writes: "The fact is that we older white men are beneficiaries of affirmative action. I 'm a tenured teacher now, but seven years ago, I was a high school dropout. I entered San Francisco State University at age 50 through the re-entry
program, a form of affirmative action. I graduated with honors and am working on a master's degree in history.

"Affirmative action benefited me directly, and I am now able to give something back to the society that gave me a hand."

Stories of hope, of opportunities that serve a higher public purpose, are rare in our cynical media. But the stories of Eva Paterson, Antonia Hernandez, Ronald Johnson, and Albert Lannon manifest the real significance of affirmative action. Affirmative action is one way to discover and realize
human potential, and affirmative action is good for America.

Paul Rockwell
, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a writer and children's librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 20, 1995.


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