Janet Hogan Chapman believes there was a time when affirmative action was needed to correct discriminatory practices against blacks and other minorities.
“Let each be judged solely on set parameters and qualifications,” the 63-year-old retired McDonough school teacher said.
Chapman was responding to the Justice Department’s recent memo seeking lawyers to investigate “race-based discrimination in college admissions” and more specifically to a question I raised days after the department’s plans made the news: “Does affirmative action discriminate against whites?”
“I am a white woman in my 60s,” Chapman wrote to me in an email. “I consider myself liberal and unprejudiced. Despite being raised in the segregated South, I have worked to overcome the inculcated beliefs of that time. That said, there are three times in my life I have experienced overt discrimination related to affirmative action.”
Chapman wasn’t the only white person to write to me, but she was the first to agree to meet with me to talk about why she believed we no longer need to rely on affirmative action to level the playing field.
And so in a rear corner of Decatur’s Toco Hill-Avis G. Williams Library, we talked for more than an hour in whispers.
Here’s what Chapman shared with me, first in an email and then face to face:
When I became a certified teacher, I wanted to teach in the county where I lived with a racially diverse and multicultural population. I had three different principals tell me they would love to hire me, I was the most qualified candidate, but I was the “wrong color.” They had been told to fill the positions with African-Americans. They told me this outright but said if I told anyone they said this, they would deny it to their grave. Sadly, over 20 years later, that school system now is one of the lowest performing in the state.
Another case did involve university admission, when I was denied entrance into a cohort doctoral program, yet a co-worker, less qualified than I but African-American, was admitted.
A third time again involved an employment opportunity. I was told the personnel chairman wanted to award me the position, for which I was exceptionally qualified, but by a narrow 1-vote margin, a committee awarded the position to a less qualified African-American. I felt badly for that lady, as so many voiced their opinions that she was given the position based on race. I kept my mouth shut and did not agree with them.
Chapman told me she grew up in the West End and Venetian Hills, graduated from Joseph E. Brown High School and in 1972 attended Georgia State University back when they offered an associate degree.
She married in 1972, and while raising three children, she held several part-time jobs to help make ends meet.
She returned to school and in 1995 earned a bachelor of science degree from Mercer and three years later a master’s and specialist’s in early childhood education from the University of West Georgia. In 2006, she earned a doctorate in school improvement.
Chapman taught for 12 years in the Fayette County public schools and three years as an adjunct professor before resigning in 2007 because of health issues. She also taught for three years as an adjunct professor, and two years as a curriculum writer.
I have no doubt Chapman was qualified for every job she held, but you have to wonder why she believes the African-Americans she was passed over for weren’t equally qualified.
Do she and other whites I heard from with similar stories really believe that all that stands between them and a successful application are under-qualified and undeserving black folk?
It would be so easy to make the argument that a good bit of American social policy — Social Security and minimum wage, for instance — excluded people who looked like me while benefiting whites, but what good would that do if you’ve convinced yourself that policies like affirmative action have come at the expense of whites?
But let me offer one example anyway. I mentioned Social Security. When that program was created in 1935, maids and farmworkers — mostly Southern blacks and Southwestern Latinos — were excluded. That alone denied benefits to 66 percent of African-Americans across the country, and a whopping 80 percent of Southern blacks.
I reminded Chapman that despite claims that blacks and other minorities are taking white students’ seats in America’s colleges and their jobs, the numbers prove otherwise.
Just days after our meeting, a New York Times analysis of 100 colleges showed that even with affirmative action, black and Hispanic students remain underrepresented in most colleges in the United States. In fact, black and Hispanic people are even more underrepresented in many colleges now than they were 35 years ago.
And so I asked Chapman: Would she rather all the seats go to white students?
She assured me that wasn’t the case, that she wants to be fair and quite frankly I believe her.
She thought about her answer for a moment.
“I want it to be fair. I want it to be just. Well, life ain’t fair, but you can’t let it color what’s in your heart.”
Chapman and I didn’t come up with any real solutions to this problem, but we did agree that it’s important to talk about our differences and that this is less political than it is moral.
“It’s going to take people’s heart changing,” she said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.