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Local News

State Lawmaker was Angered by Colleague’s Racist Comments, but Chose to Forgive

Credit: iStock

by Greg Childress, NC Newsline

A white, Republican colleague’s question about whether Rep. Abe Jones was admitted to Harvard University in 1970 because he was a minority and a track athlete was only the second time the Wake County Democrat had experienced such an encounter.

The first incident occurred several years ago during a party at UNC Chapel Hill when a “half-lit” white woman who had been rejected by Harvard expressed disbelief that Jones, who is Black, had gone to the prestigious Ivy League school.

The woman implied that minorities such as Jones had stolen seats that she and other whites deserved.

“Nobody says that to you unless they’re drunk or stupid and she wasn’t stupid, so I think that she was half-lit,” Jones told Newsline. “That was the only other time in my life when someone just hit me in the face with it like that.”

Offensive questions from a colleague

The second incident occurred a week ago when Rep. Jeff McNeely, an Iredell County Republican, questioned Jones’ academic achievements during a spirited debate on the House floor. The body was discussing a controversial GOP-backed bill to expand the state’s school voucher program so that North Carolina’s wealthiest families can access the program.

McNeely asked Jones, a former Superior Court judge, if he would have been able to attend Harvard and Harvard Law School if “you were not an athlete or a minority or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school that the slowest …  in the wild we’ll say the slowest gazelle does not survive but yet the herd moves at that pace, so the brightest child is held back.”

Jones responded: “Harvard had five rankings for their students; one, two, three, four, five. When I graduated from Harvard, I was in rank two, so I earned my place and I did well.”

McNeely later apologized for the ill-advised comments that garnered national attention and were widely condemned as racist.

Jones never received an apology from the soused party-goer in Chapel Hill.

Jones hopes that McNeely’s apology was sincere. He acknowledged being angry and wanting to say something “mean” but took the high road by addressing McNeely’s question about whether he belonged at Harvard.

“I think someone talked to him in between the time he insulted me and apologized,” Jones said. “I accepted just to let him know … everybody can make a mistake. Maybe the mistake wasn’t so much he felt the way he did. The mistake was to say it to me and not know the whole story. He shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong and it was racist.”

The challenges to his academic achievement are like “slaps in my face,” said Jones, who is immensely proud of his academic achievements as a Harvard undergrad and as a Harvard Law School graduate.

“I worked hard at being a good student,” Jones said. “I had good study habits, I have a regimen that I followed, and so that was a slap in my face to say that I didn’t deserve to be there. I was there and I kept up, so I did deserve to be there.”

Here we go again

The idea that Jones was admitted to Harvard because of his race and athletic ability harkens to times before the nation’s political culture wars moved from college campuses to elementary schools.

Then, instead of critical race theory, affirmative action was the conservative buzz word that was used to stoke the anger and fears of whites who were told that elite colleges and universities were unfairly awarding seats to unqualified members of minority groups at the expense of whites in pursuit of meeting diversity goals.

It became an easy sell, especially to prospective students such as the woman rejected by Harvard who questioned whether Jones was qualified to attend the school. How else could she explain Harvard’s decision not to admit her?

For Jones and other minority students attending elite public and private and colleges, white resistance to their admission into such schools was a disturbing reminder of America’s racist past when Black people were denied equal opportunities because of their skin color.

It was also a rejection of the hard-earned academic achievements that propelled many Black students into coveted seats in some of the nation’s best schools.

“What went through my mind was how dare you do that to me?” said Jones, who reminded the woman at the party that all of the Harvard slots belonged to the university, which awarded one to him and passed on her.        

McNeely’s remarks have been roundly condemned in progressive circles across the nation. Jones said a half dozen or so Republican lawmakers have also apologized for the inappropriate comments.

A family with a proud record of achievement

To understand how far off-base McNeely’s remarks were about Jones, one would have to understand deeply committed Jones’ family was to education.

“Education was highly valued [in the Jones household], so much so, that when I was growing up, on weeknights, there was no television after Walter Cronkite went off at 7 p.m.,” Jones said. “If you got done with homework early, my dad would say read a book and go to bed.”

Jones’ dad was a college professor who taught at several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

His grandparents were educators, and his mother became a substitute teacher and teacher’s assistant after she finished rearing seven children.

Five of Jones’ six siblings earned college degrees. Two, including Jones, received degrees from Ivy League schools. A sister earned degrees from Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The only sibling who did not go to college was challenged by autism.

Harvard was not on Jones’ list of colleges in the months before he graduated from Enloe High School in Raleigh. He got there after a chance meeting with a recruiter in town to talk to students at Raleigh’s Broughton High School.

The recruiter finished early and stopped by Enloe en route to the airport and asked the counselor if she knew of any students who would be interested in talking about Harvard.

“He interviewed me for about 30 minutes, took an application out of his brief case and told me to send it in,” Jones said. “That’s how I got to Harvard.”

Until that chance meeting with the Harvard recruiter, Jones had decided to go to either Northwestern University or McNeely’s alma mater, N.C. State University, where he’d already spent time working out with the cross country and track teams.

When the acceptance letter came from Harvard, the family saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Jones’ dad was a Hampton Institute graduate, a small HBCU in Virginia that is now Hampton University and had wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.

“He said you’re going to have to go to Harvard,” Jones said. “That’s an opportunity of a lifetime, so take it.”

Jones was awarded an academic scholarship. Harvard doesn’t award athletic scholarships, Jones said, which runs counter to McNeely’s comments suggesting that he attended the school because he was an athlete.

“Just measure me by the same standards that you measure everybody else and I’ll be just fine,” Jones said. “Don’t put an extra load on me about being Black or being an athlete. That was a cheap shot.”

This article was originally published on NC Newsline and is republished here under a Creative Commons License.