(CNN) — I walked into the room hoping no one would discover my secret.
I feared my accent would betray my identity, so I kept silent. I glanced self-consciously at my cheap clothes, wishing I could afford better. I stared at the photogenic, self-assured students around me as if they were from another planet.
For me, they were from another world.
I was a 17-year-old African-American from an impoverished, inner-city community and had no idea what I was getting into. Next to me in a college freshman orientation class were students who came from private schools and grew up in homes with swimming pools and maids.
But here was the catch: I wasn’t an affirmative action enrollee at an elite white university. I was a black student thrust onto the campus of a predominately black university. My hang-up wasn’t race; it was class. I was suffering from “class shock.” I was on a path to self-destruction because I didn’t know how to cross the bridge from poverty into this strange, new world.
I thought about that period in my life after learning last week that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the use of race in college admissions but had signaled that it may soon abandon that position. People are already preparing for what may come next: Colleges are going to create diversity by using class instead of race. Some call it economic affirmative action.
It is something liberals and conservatives seem to support. That’s part of its appeal. Such an approach would create diversity on college campuses without resurrecting the endless wars over race-based affirmative action.
Richard Kahlenberg, dubbed the “intellectual father” of economic affirmative action, says the current approach to affirmative action in higher education does not help many poor black students.
In his paper, “A Better Affirmative Action,” Kahlenberg cited research that found 86% of contemporary black students at selective colleges were either middle or upper class.
Class-based affirmative action is something all kinds of Americans — including conservative justices on the Supreme Court — could support, he says.
“Even the most right-wing justices, like Clarence Thomas, have said that they support the idea of race-neutral affirmative action for economically disadvantaged students,” he says.
Maybe so. But my experience suggests that there is a hidden challenge to such an approach. Placing poor students in top-tier colleges is only half of the battle. There’s another psychological battle that some of these students will fight within themselves, and, as I found out, there’s no college prep course out there to help.
‘There can only be one captain’
I grew up in West Baltimore, about three blocks from a notorious strip of bars, storefront churches and boarded-up homes called North Avenue. My neighborhood was the setting for the popular HBO series “The Wire,” a grim look at urban disintegration in a black section of Baltimore.
It’s always tempting when you come from such a neighborhood to exaggerate your struggles. People love war stories, and I have my share. But things never felt as if they were falling apart to me. It was normal. It was all I knew.
I came of age in Baltimore during the late 1970s and early ’80s. I left for college just as the crack wars began to spread across black communities in America. But my neighborhood didn’t need crack to turn dangerous. It was already on its way.
I went to a junior high where I learned to duck, not read. Students rioted and television crews visited our school to report the latest outbreak. I knew friends who were murdered, and some who did the murdering (one of my best friends in high school strangled his girlfriend just to steal her VCR).
There was another type of violence I saw, though, that was more sinister: a strangulation of the spirit that claimed so many smart friends.
We had trouble believing that there was a life for us beyond West Baltimore. We didn’t really talk about college, getting a white-collar job in a profession or owning a business. I worked one summer moving boxes in a dingy warehouse, and I thought a menial job like that would be my fate.
This lack of self-belief hung in the air like humidity — I couldn’t see it, but it seeped into my pores. Racial isolation played a role. I hardly ever saw any white people in my neighborhood, and there was only one white student in my high school of 2,000. (We used to stare at her like she was an exotic animal when we saw her in the hallways.) I remember asking myself one day what I would do if I saw a white person walk up my street. Why, I’d have to attack them, I concluded.
It was almost as if there was some magical White World in some faraway land populated by smug people who had all the power and the money. And then there was an embarrassing thought that I would never admit to others. White people were just smarter. I remember declining an invitation to join my high school academic team because I did not want to compete against affluent, white schools. I was too intimidated.
Fortunately, I had plenty of people around me who cared: An aunt who encouraged my love of reading; heroic teachers who nurtured my nascent interest in journalism; and a stern father who, while never caring how I did in school, told me he wasn’t going to take care of me forever.
He was a merchant seaman, and he would march around the house shirtless and bellow: “There can only be one captain on a ship. When you turn 17, you’re getting the hell out.”
I did get the hell out when I turned 17, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
I applied to only one college — Howard University. I picked it because it was in nearby Washington. I didn’t know anything about SAT prep courses, and I don’t remember meeting with a high school counselor. I just took my SAT without any preparation and scored 830.
I could only imagine paying for college through sports. I was a tennis nut who constantly trained in hopes of a scholarship. I could walk through my neighborhood at all times of night without fear. But passing some bemused toughs on the corner with my Jack Kramer wood racket and tennis whites made me nervous. Tennis was seen as a white man’s sport, but I eagerly took it up with the support of a popular local coach who funded my training.
I wasn’t good enough to get a full tennis scholarship. But tennis would still be my salvation — just not in the way I expected.
Howard took a chance on me. And that’s where I found myself one muggy August morning for freshman orientation, surrounded by all of these impossibly self-assured students who oozed money and privilege. Howard was a black school, but it was considered the elite destination not only for affluent African-Americans, but students of color from Africa and the Caribbean.
What have I gotten myself into, I thought, as I wandered around the campus in a daze.
Looking under the lamppost
Only now, almost 25 years later, do I see that my lack of preparation for college was typical.
Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University in California, released a study last year entitled “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students.” It said that many poor students don’t know about the opportunities awaiting them on college campuses.
She discovered that the vast majority of high-achieving poor students in the U.S. do not apply to selective colleges, even though it would be cheaper for them to attend those colleges because of the generous financial aid available. Selective colleges are often defined as the nation’s top 200 or so most competitive public and private schools.
Hoxby and co-author Christopher Avery of Harvard University said that these students didn’t apply to selective colleges because they were less likely to encounter a classmate, teacher or older cohort who had attended one.
When these same students, though, were told about their options, they were 78% more likely to apply to these elite colleges, she says.
“People think low-income students just don’t aspire to get into selective colleges,” she says. “They do have high aspirations, but they need help in getting over the high hurdles.”
Hoxby said these colleges are complicit in missing these students. They tend to look for low-income, high-achieving students in the same big cities and in places physically near their campuses. She calls it searching “under the lamppost.”
“What you would see is that a Columbia [University] would be searching in Harlem or in the Bronx for students, but most of the low-income kids in the United States do not lie in the backyard of very selective colleges.”
Hoxby says her study also debunked a popular belief about affirmative action: Poor black students often flunk out because they are not prepared.
She found that high-achieving, poor students — those whose grades and college aptitude test scores put them in the top 10% of students who take the ACT or SAT exams — graduate at high rates at selective colleges.
“It’s a complete myth,” she says. “We found that low-income high-achievers did just as well at the selective colleges as high-income achievers.”
Undercover at Howard
Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those poor, high-achieving college students at Howard.
On the surface, I should have thrived. Howard was a very nurturing environment. I was surrounded by other black students. Yet, I was put on academic probation after my first year and on the verge of flunking out when I returned as a sophomore.
Why had this happened? I felt like an imposter.
I had never been around so many black people who could talk so well. They were different. Many came from affluent families and integrated high schools and had never absorbed any inferiority complexes about white people. When I looked at my classmate’s high school yearbooks, I marveled at the grandeur of their schools.
I decided that this world wasn’t for me.
I didn’t tell anyone about my neighborhood. I wouldn’t talk in class for fear that my thick, rapid-fire Baltimore accent would betray my lack of good breeding. I slept in and started missing classes because I wanted to return to my old neighborhood and old friends.
As my sophomore year began, I knew that another bad semester would send me packing. I started preparing my apologies to my family and high school teachers.
Then one night, something clicked.
A crucial midterm test was coming up that I didn’t think I could pass. As I walked back to my dorm, I pictured the disappointment on the faces of my loved ones.
I wondered: How can I avoid this? Then a mental gear shifted: Treat school like tennis.
I would only stop my tennis practice sessions when I was exhausted by the repetition. Convert the classroom to a tennis court, I thought. Study until you’re exhausted, build a classroom routine, and no matter what happens, you can say you did your best.
I got an A on the midterm, and I ended up graduating from Howard with honors, getting straight A’s during my last three semesters, except for one “B” in an English class. (I’m still upset about that B.)
I put the time in, and I saw results. But I would be lying if I attributed my transformation to a change in attitude alone. It required a change in friends as well.
As I gained more confidence during college, I shed my secret identity. I told friends about my upbringing. They accepted me; some even thought it was cool. Their belief in me helped me to believe in myself.
My college girlfriend, Susan, grew up in Baldwin Hills, California, the daughter of a doctor — someone who went to private schools in Beverly Hills and attended Stanford before transferring to Howard.
“John,” she’d tell me as a big smile spread across her freckled face, “you’re just as smart as those students at Stanford.”
I was finally learning to be captain of my own ship.
I eventually believed her, but what about those poor but promising students who will be the beneficiaries of economic affirmative action?
I wonder if it will be even more difficult for a poor student to make that leap to college today. It’s certainly more expensive.
My tuition was only $1,800 a semester, and that was paid for through academic scholarships I earned each semester and by working. I never had student loans. Will those generous scholarships be there for poor students if the nation transitions to economic affirmative action? Colleges are a business, and many of them have had to cut back in the anemic wake of the Great Recession.
Even in good times, selective colleges didn’t aggressively pursue poor students because they don’t make money off giving financial aid to needy students, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce.
“They can’t afford to do class,” he says. “It costs too much money. Poor people need money.”
Race-based college admissions are actually easier for many colleges, he said. They tend to recruit more affluent blacks who can pay tuition, and they get to show the world that they care about diversity.
“Minority students are much more obvious on campus,” he says. “When you walk across the campus of Georgia, you can’t tell which ones are poor.”
He says selective colleges are becoming “bastions of privilege.” Only the children of the affluent can attend, and there’s little outrage over the bleak prospects for poor but gifted black students in reeling communities such as inner-city Detroit because people ignore the poor.
“Because of the social isolation of communities of poor people, it’s very easy to disappear them,” he says. “That’s what we do with all these kids in Detroit. They just disappear.”
I almost disappeared as well. When I look back, I see that my transition could have been snuffed out easily at so many junctures. A chance meeting, a crucial friendship, just growing up in a big city near Washington — those factors all helped.
“I did get the hell out” as my father demanded. But I wonder how many more poor kids with potential will do the same at a time when the gap between the rich and poor is widening?
I wonder if the bridge I crossed is collapsing. And I so want to believe that this nation will commit to a class-based affirmative action that will help poor students of all colors, including whites.
If economic affirmative action is just an educational fad, though, then I fear for our future. My story shouldn’t be exceptional. It should be the norm in America. No poor kid should wonder if they’re an imposter.
No one like me should worry about becoming one of the disappeared.