Earlier this week I realized how easy it is to throw out an affirmative action baby with the bathwater. I took a day off from my diversity consulting practice to participate in a mock interview session for an organization that provides mentoring and other support for attorneys of color. I sat across from a tense, African-American woman in a poly-blend suit who did not crack a smile. Her posture betrayed her lack of confidence and she bombed my canned interview questions. In a brief moment of smugness, I wondered if I was ever that choppy in an interview. I'm sure that Senator David Vitter would resoundingly say yes.
When I was a law student, David Vitter, in his pre-Senate days, was my mock interviewer when I participated in a leadership program for minority law students. Aside from his office (and bedroom) politics, I thought he was a great person for sharing a few hours of his Saturday to polish up my interviewing skills. Even though my style at the time was as coarse, if not more so, than the young woman I mock interviewed, David did not write me off. Whether his community service was driven by ambition to get votes or was genuine, it really doesn't matter because in the end the result is the same -- he was there for me.
When I learned that there was a shortage of mock interviewers last week, I was reminded that too often, those of us who have benefited from affirmative action forget how and when to give back. You have those who forget that anyone ever helped them and as a result, do not help others. Then you have those who will help out but will only invest their time in those they deem the talented tenth. Others will only write a check to support a charity fundraiser. (I think they are too afraid to have any human contact with the people who are standing in the shoes we have since discarded.)
I can already hear the ripostes from both sides of the affirmative action divide. "I'm no affirmative action baby, I worked hard to get where I am," or "Why should I have to do anything for anyone else?"
I would challenge most people (even white people), to show me that they have not benefited from some form of affirmative action. Aside from the textbook definition affirmative action or set aside programs for minorities, you are also an affirmative action baby when someone makes a phone call on your behalf, or tells you about an unposted job opening or gets your resume in front of the right person. Whether it was a structured program or well-connected relative the result is the same: someone took an affirmative action to see you succeed. It is a travesty when we forget the help we received along the way.
As I congratulate Judge Sotomayor on her historic appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, I hope that she continues to remember her roots as an affirmative action baby. I hope that she continues to talk to law students, give thought provoking speeches and mentor others along the way. There is a chance that her sense of community and her willingness to run toward it (rather than away from it) might rub off on some of the other affirmative action babies who have also arrived at the court.