“I don’t want nobody
To give me nothing
Open up the door
I’ll get it myself.”
When James Brown recorded the lyrics to his B-side single, “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing” in 1969, he had no idea it would become an anthem in the fight for equality and self-reliance in the Black community. The song, which encouraged African-Americans to rely on themselves instead of “America” was a powerful testament to the political activism of the R&B singer, who did not shy away from issues of literacy, drug addiction, and racial pride. In the last several days, I have found myself thinking about these lyrics and their relevance to a federal court case that started this week.
Harvard University is being sued by a group of Asian American students who are arguing that the school is unfairly capping the number of Asian students they admit to create more racial diversity in enrollment. Affirmative Action is, once again, on trial. We’ve been here before and Wisconsin has been a battleground state. In fact, it was one of the early fights in my career as a legislator and one that most often reminds me of the late Rep. Tamara Grigsby.
In 2006, Wisconsin’s Joint Legislative Council established the Special Committee on Affirmative Action. As a member of the 13-person committee, along with Rep. Grigsby, we were directed to review state and local government affirmative action policies, to include student admission to the UW and Wisconsin Technical College System and state contracting and hiring. We looked at whether those policies were uniform in content and administration statewide in both local and state government, the effect on the public, and whether they were cost-effective.
Most memorable about our work was the roughly three-hour testimony provided by Ward Connerly. The controversial Black chairman, of the ironically named American Civil Rights Coalition, was against the use of affirmative action initiatives that factored race in college admissions. Connerly was not an expert in affirmative action policies and wasn’t from Wisconsin. He spoke singularly to the issue of college admissions, ranted about the use of quotas that were non-existent in our state, and had no data to back up his positions.
On the other hand, the committee heard from a number of actual Wisconsin experts on the subject matter who extoled the veracity of affirmative action and its benefits. Even the Supreme Court looked at extensive research and recognized that educational outcomes are improved when “the greatest possible variety of backgrounds” are represented in the classroom. Yet, the old saying that “elections have consequences” has never rang truer.
This suit could easily make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Donald Trump’s appointee, Brett Kavanaugh and his hyper partisan ideology, now resides. Affirmative Action was implemented to open doors to Blacks and others who have historically, systemically, and for hundreds of years legally been excluded from education, employment and more. Don’t confuse an opened door, for a free ride. Our work and ability keep us in the room, despite an uneven and at times, immoral playing field.