Opinion | Complicated Stories of Affirmative Action

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To the Editor:

Re “On Race and Academia,” by John McWhorter (newsletter, July 4):

Professor McWhorter’s account of being placed in positions for which he was less than qualified as a result of a series of institutions’ attempts at affirmative action is undoubtedly based on both his experience and analysis. Unfortunately, it reinforces the prevailing narrative that affirmative action gives less qualified people of color opportunities denied to more qualified people who are white.

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her TED Talk “The Danger of the Single Story” that we need a balance of stories.

Joy Reid recently shared her affirmative action story on MSNBC. Ms. Reid attended Harvard because it actively recruited her and other highly qualified African Americans who met the academic requirements but might not have otherwise applied.

For every John, there is a Joy. Let’s expand the narrative.

Andrea Haynes Johnson
Las Vegas
The writer is an adviser for Courageous Conversation, which provides consulting services on racial equity.

To the Editor:

John McWhorter takes a very narrow view. As someone who made many hires in 30 years as a manager in a male-dominated nonacademic setting, I often gave preference to minority or female candidates.

I did this not only for the benefit of the individual who got the job, but also for their co-workers and for me as their boss. It really did make a difference to have people from different backgrounds in the room when decisions got made. That difference benefited everyone in my company, as well as our customers.

The people I didn’t hire could have done the job, but they could never have brought the diversity of experience that the people I hired did. And when I walked out the door, there were still more white men at most levels in the organization than other people, though not as many as when I walked in.

Mr. McWhorter should consider that more is at stake than individual advancement. What did it mean to students in his classes — both white and those of color — to have a Black teacher? There were none when I went to school so I’ll never know.

What did it mean in faculty meetings to have the voice of one more person of color? I was often the only woman in meetings, and it sure made a difference to me when a few more came along!

Jane Scholz
Denton, Texas

To the Editor:

John McWhorter shares with us the personal pain he endured when favored in college admissions and job achievements. I get it. Someone who works hard and applies himself as Professor McWhorter did wants to believe he fairly achieved his successes without a helping hand and without hurting those more “deserving” based on their credentials.

However, Professor McWhorter does not see the bigger picture here. His elevation, even if unfair to others, put him in a position (one he ultimately made himself supremely qualified for) that graces our world with his intellect in The New York Times and provides many disadvantaged strivers with a brilliant role model to which to aspire.

His unique view of the world and race is critically important to society, and it would be less likely available had he not had the leg up that now causes him so much consternation.

The white colleagues he was so embarrassed to leapfrog also had a leg up simply by dint of the color of their skin for their whole life.

Eric Farnsworth
Madison, Wis.

When Race Overshadows Artistic Achievement

To the Editor:

Re “See My Dancing, Not My Skin Color,” by Gabe Stone Shayer (Opinion guest essay, July 10):

I would like to express appreciation and gratitude for Mr. Shayer’s essay regarding his journey in the world of ballet.

I deeply recognize his plight coming from my own experience as a director, producer and writer working in the American theater who has always wanted to be celebrated for my race, but not limited in any way by being referred to and ignorantly considered to be a “Black director.” I often ask: Are my much admired colleagues ever called “white directors”?

I have worked in theaters all over the country, and served as artistic director at the Tony Award-winning Pasadena Playhouse for two decades. I too have always wanted to be seen as an artist first. But throughout a long, fortunate and indeed blessed career, I too have had to fight long, hard and often to make that a reality.

It would be nice, and perhaps comforting, to think that these challenges are in our past. Sadly they are very much with us on a day-to-day basis even now, years after the “We See You White American Theater” letter calling for new practices that support theater workers of color was widely discussed, debated, argued about, acted upon and perhaps now forgotten. Even as new leaders of color at many major American theaters face the same challenges that I faced more than 20 years ago.

I long for the day when Mr. Shayer’s essay, this letter and even discussion of the issue are no longer necessary. But I write because the conversation must go on and actions must replace so many words in order for us to reach that grand and glorious day.

Sheldon Epps
Los Angeles
The writer is the senior artistic adviser for Ford’s Theater in Washington and the author of “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre.”

To the Editor:

As a subscriber to American Ballet Theater for over 40 years, I applaud the increased level of diversity on its stage today that is consistent with the high level of artistry that the company has always been known for.

Gabe Stone Shayer says he is a dancer and a Black man, in that order, yet he only briefly touches on his disagreement with the company concerning its evaluation of his tenure, which has included far more roles than the “swarthy, sinister” ones he describes.

Not every dancer promoted to soloist reaches the rank of principal. At the end of the day, that’s what this seems to be about.

Edwin Bacher
New York

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