As I See It: Unhappy Anniversary
March 5, 2012 Victor Rozek
There aren’t many days when I wake up deciding to annoy a lot of people. Nor is this one of them. But that’s the risk a writer takes when tackling any controversial subject: passions run high, tolerance runs low, and minds are usually made up before a single word is uttered. Over the years, few issues have been more polarizing than Affirmative Action, a program which is either: a) well-intended and successful, b) imperfect but still necessary, c) unfair and outdated, or d) outright racist, depending on your point of view.
Like it or not, Affirmative Action has been part of the national operating system for the past 50 years. For most of us, it functions outside our consciousness and, again depending on your perspective, it is either righting a long-standing wrong, or helping some at the expense of others. Its most egregious abuses are publicized; its quiet successes remain largely invisible. But the issue is about to take center stage thanks to Abigail Noel Fisher. Ms. Fisher sued the state of Texas claiming she was denied the opportunity to become a Longhorn because she is white.
Perhaps none of this would have happened had Fisher been a slightly better student but, alas, she fell below the top 10 percent of high school graduates who are automatically guaranteed admittance to the state’s public universities. In her lawsuit, she correctly claimed that the University of Texas used race as one of the factors that determined who received the remaining spots. And, since she didn’t benefit from that criteria, she declared it to be unfair. Later this year, the Supreme Court will listen to Fisher’s lawyers argue that very point. Given the conservative makeup of the court, chances are that the practice of giving special consideration to minorities will end.
Ironically, as recently as 2003, a Supreme Court ruling affirmed the right of colleges to consider race in admissions. But the ruling was vague on specifics and only narrowly passed by a vote of 5 to 4. Since then, the court has not only shifted right, but Justice Elena Kagan, thought to be supportive of Affirmative Action, plans to recuse herself.
The principles of Affirmative Action in education have leached into many related areas such as housing and employment. A decision to abolish Affirmative Action in the public sector is likely to have a domino effect; if it’s wrong (or at least illegal) in one context, why would it not be challenged in another?
Opponents of Affirmative Action argue that, clearly, minorities are measurably better off than they were 50 years ago. Then, America was a much different place. Private and state-sponsored racial discrimination was openly practiced and pervasive. Fire hoses and dogs greeted black students at the University of Alabama. President Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard to ensure the admittance to two black students who were blocked from entering the university by a defiant George Wallace.
But Wallace is long gone, and his shroud morphed into a colorful social fabric. Black entrepreneurs, professionals, writers, musicians, athletes, actors, and entertainers became visible–and in some cases, dominant–threads in that fabric. On a national stage, two black Secretaries of State, a Supreme Court justice, and a black President ascended to office. Why, opponents argue, should the child of a successful black entrepreneur be given preferential treatment over a poor Hispanic, Asian, or Caucasian child? Blacks, they point out, are no longer even the largest minority, yet they receive disproportionate assistance. According to the online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1,600 (today it’s 2,400), and he found that Asian-Americans needed a 1,550 SAT to have a chance of getting into an elite college equal to white students with a 1,410 or black students with an 1,100.” What message, they ask, are we sending to other deserving students? And aren’t we falsely stigmatizing African Americans as incapable of competing on their own merit?
Finally, opponents argue that if the problem can’t be solved in a half-century, maybe the reasons are cultural, not prejudicial. When black children are ostracized and ridiculed by their peers for speaking proper English and being studious; when sports and rap music are valued more than good grades, failure is built into the culture.
Proponents will argue that the job is far from done. Racism may have become unfashionable and gone underground, but enough of it leaks out to suggest we still have a systemic problem. Just a few days ago, a Federal Judge in Montana sent a racist email about the President, equating African Americans with dogs. And while gains have undeniably been made, power positions on Wall Street, in governance, in Fortune 500 companies, and universities remain disproportionately dominated by Caucasians.
Proponents say that the broader objective is not just to eliminate discrimination but to eliminate the product of discrimination, which is racial inequality. As Boyce Watkins, professor at Syracuse University and founder of Your Black World Coalition says, “you can have racial inequality even when there are no racists in the building.”
Granted, not all people benefitting from Affirmative Action have been direct victims of discrimination, but proponents argue that they were generational victims. Discrimination experienced by their ancestors prevented them from leaving their children a proper inheritance. There was no seed money, no generational wealth, no power base from which to grow. The results manifest in quality-of-life differences: less education, lower paying jobs, a greater chance of drug use, lower lifetime earning potential, a greater probability of incarceration, even shorter life spans. People of color, they argue, cope with a very different reality.
More broadly, proponents of Affirmative Action want the nation to live up to its highest ideals; to extend the promise of equality to a race of people who, for the better part of 400 years, have been running the race hobbled. Happily, the younger generation is largely color blind. Latinos, Asians, and African Americans are no longer the novelty they were 50 years ago. They are an established presence, integrated into public life to a degree that was unimaginable a half-century ago. Racial differences are, in the words of a 15-year old, “no big deal.” White kids don’t care, and minority kids are embarrassed to be treated differently.
So, are we being race-obsessed beyond what is reasonable and healthy? Perhaps it’s time to change the focus from race to class. In terms of access to higher education–and therefore decent employment–cost is becoming a far greater obstacle than test scores. This past year, 41 states have cut spending for public higher education, driving up tuition. Students in California are facing an average increase of 21 percent. And the New York Federal Reserve Bank estimates that student debt now stands at a crushing $550 billion. For many, education has become more curse than blessing.
Race, discrimination, privilege, entitlement, self-determination, and what constitutes equal opportunity are weighty matters, which is why they often find their way to the Supreme Court. As a measure of how far we’ve come, at least two of the justices who will hear the case arguably benefitted from Affirmative Action. One of them, Justice Thomas, acknowledges that he used Affirmative Action to help him gain entry to Yale, but later felt “humiliated” when white peers doubted the validity of his credentials.
That’s the essence of the dilemma created by Affirmative Action: Thomas was right to use it; and his colleagues were right to be skeptical. Whether the positive outcomes of Affirmative Action outweigh the potential damages, is ultimately a person-by-person consideration and difficult to codify into law. Einstein once said that a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which it was created. Fifty years ago, Affirmative Action was born of higher consciousness, but consciousness evolves, and the Supreme Court will, at least temporarily, decide its direction.