As a child, I was always fascinated by the tortures inflicted in Greek mythology—Sisyphus forced to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down every evening. Prometheus enduring the eating of his liver by an eagle every day. They're just so exquisitely punitive. But I gotta tell you, writing a defense of affirmative action would have been a perfect addition to Hades' arsenal. Not only is the policy poorly understood by both its supporters and detractors, but it seems, at first blush, to fly in the face of American precepts of equality. Still, since it's Black History Month, I thought I'd take up the cause—not simply because I like hate mail, but also because I really believe that affirmative action is a crucial tool in the fight for equal opportunity and access for all.
One of the problems, I think, is branding. Opponents of affirmative action have succeeded in associating the phrase with unfair advantages for undeserving minorities and women. A 1996 article in Stanford Magazine, by David Sacks and Peter Theil, is a perfect and well-written example: "Over the past quarter of a century, Stanford has been discriminating in favor of racial minorities in admissions, hiring, tenure, contracting and financial aid. But only recently has the University been forced to rethink these policies in the face of an emerging public debate over affirmative action. We are beginning to see why. Originally conceived as a means to redress discrimination, racial preferences have instead promoted it. And rather than fostering harmony and integration, preferences have divided the campus. In no other area of public life is there a greater disparity between the rhetoric of preferences and the reality." I don't see it that way. In certain very competitive circumstances such as college admissions, affirmative action has caused everybody to feel unfairly judged, not just black people. Stanford has every right to compose a student body based on the qualifications it thinks will maintain its status as an elite university. If one of those qualifications is a diversity of background, so be it. Any guidance counselor will tell you: it takes more than good SAT scores to get into college. Affirmative action isn't around to play favorites—nor is it supposed to prefer people of color over white ones. It is a system designed to make sure that everybody is getting into college through their qualifications whether you are a poor kid from East L.A. or a fourth-generation legacy.
Sadly, though, the phrase "affirmative action" has become code for choosing unqualified minority candidates instead of qualified white people. A survey done last year by Quinnipiac University found that more than 70 percent of voters think diversity is not a good enough reason to give minorities preferential treatment. And that's despite the fact that the number of people who fall under the protection of such programs has continued to grow—women, Hispanics, gay men and lesbians, the disabled, even white men have all been the beneficiaries of more inclusive hiring practices. As long as people remain convinced that affirmative action is about giving minorities preferential treatment, they will also remain ignorant of the fact that affirmative action works on behalf of all people. But rather than patiently explaining that the aim of affirmative action is not to toss white men out on the street or proving that I deserve all the opportunities I've been given, I propose changing the name to "employment equity," the phrase they use in Canada. Or at least some kind of wording that says: "This isn't about demonizing white men, stealing their jobs, and giving them to knuckleheads. This is about fairness."
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Affirmative action wasn't supposed to be controversial. In 1961 when President Kennedy issued an executive order mandating that beneficiaries of federal monies "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin," it was a bold call to arms for the American government to walk the walk of desegregation. It wasn't until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that Lyndon Johnson expanded the mission of affirmative action: "You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair…This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."
Back then, with the paint over the "Whites Only" signs still fresh, it made sense that a simple law, no matter how historic, would not be enough to end Jim Crow. But what was a pressing social issue more than 40 years ago is a high-school history lesson now. Today most people are opposed to legislating preference. But does that mean they're against equality?
Affirmative action is not about giving African-Americans now the 40 acres and a mule their enslaved ancestors never got. It is about creating opportunities for the minority that the majority might be tempted to keep for itself. And while there has been a vast improvement in race relations since 1964, I don't think anyone believes all our problems surrounding discrimination and bias have been solved. Hundreds of people have climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, but that doesn't make it accessible.
Accessibility in the workplace, in schools, and everywhere else comes out of diversity. Having a diverse workforce or student body does have benefits. In "Impact of Diversity on Students: A Preliminary Review of the Research Literature", authors Morgan Appel, David Cartwright, Daryl G. Smith, and Lisa E. Wolf found that diversity "is increasingly related to satisfaction, academic success, and cognitive development of all students." And one way to achieve that diversity is affirmative action—fostering multiculturalism in a codified way until it becomes second nature. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author of the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a pivotal decision in support of affirmative action, has herself recognized that affirmative action isn't a permanent solution but a remedy that, if used, dare I say, judiciously, will one day make itself irrelevant. "When the time comes to reassess the constitutionality of considering race in higher-education admissions," she wrote, reflecting on the decision nearly seven years later in The Next Twenty-five Years: Affirmative Action in Higher Education in the United States and South Africa, "we will need social scientists to clearly demonstrate the educational benefits of diverse student bodies, and to better understand the links between role models in one generation and aspirations and achievements of succeeding generations."
Diversity isn't just an attempt to look good in pictures or to appear politically correct…that's a Benetton ad. Diversity challenges assumptions and forces people to rely on personal experience instead of stereotype. It's hard to think black people are inferior if they're sitting next to you in freshman English or in a conference room. Diversity is just a synonym for melting pot—an attempt to get us closer to the day when "our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin," wrote Franklin Thomas, former head of the Ford Foundation, "or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings." But we're going to need a little equity if we ever want to get there.
Imagine a world where no one notices the color of each other’s skin, a world where everyone was treated equally, fairly, and without prejudice. This is the goal of our generation. We want to see equal opportunities for everyone regardless of sex, or race, or nationality. Unfortunately, this will never happen as long as colleges and universities continue to favor certain applicants based on their race. The term affirmative action refers to policies that take race, ethnicity, or sex into consideration in an attempt to promote equal opportunity or increase ethnic or other forms of diversity (Wikipedia). Colleges and universities currently use affirmative action when reviewing college applications, and they are currently favoring black and other ethnic nationalities over white students in their admissions procedures. I along with many others believe this is not only unfair to white students, but is also harmful to the entire black race. Affirmative action is wrong; hard work, good grades, and a fierce determination should be considered when colleges and universities choose their freshman classes, not race.
The Supreme Court ruled that race could be a factor for universities shaping their admissions program (Washington CNN). This not only violates the constitutional guarantee against discrimination, but I believe it is also a form of reverse racism. These types of programs unconstitutionally discriminate against white students (Washington CNN). Imagine two students, one white, and the other black. Both students have grown up together, attending the same schools, pursuing the same extra curricular activities, both members of the same social clubs. Equal in every way except perhaps the white students grades are slightly better; perhaps the white student managed a better score on his SAT’s. Imagine the disappointment the white student might feel if the black student was considered for admission to a college or university that had passed up the white students application based on racial factors. Inequalities did occur in our country many years ago. Black people were not treated the same as white people. As unfair as it was to blacks, these injustices are not going to be solved by giving preferential treatment to black students entering into college, this is only causing the white students to be discriminated against in the same way we are fighting to free blacks from. This form of affirmative action is only distorting our understanding of racial discrimination (A Negative Vote of Affirmative Action).
I believe that by allowing affirmative action, we are undermining the self-respect of minority races (A Negative Vote of Affirmative Action). Affirmative action may actually be making black people feel inferior because they may not feel they are good enough to earn admission on their own. Acceptance into college is an earned privilege. It is something we work our entire childhood to achieve. Schoolwork, homework, sacrifices; we do these things to assure our acceptance into a college. It is a rite of passage that we look forward to. I cannot imagine being accepted into a college based upon the color of my skin knowing everybody else made sacrifices for the same privilege. If I gained admission to college based upon the color of my skin, I would always wonder if I was ever actually smart enough to do the same thing on my own. I would enter into a situation when I felt inferior. I would never feel good enough. Because of affirmative action, many blacks may lose their self-respect because they may not feel they have earned their admissions based on their skills and abilities.
By allowing affirmative action, we may also be creating a victim mentality among blacks (A Negative Vote on Affirmative Action). Slavery was an appalling reality that happened in the past. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. By allowing affirmative action, instead of growing and learning from the past, we are allowing blacks to use it as an excuse as to why they cannot be successful today. Slavery occurred hundreds of years ago. Now is the time to move on and allow blacks to achieve equal opportunities on their own. Now is the time for blacks to feel the joy of their own success. Blacks need to feel their own accomplishments; they need to feel the sense of pride that goes along with hard work. Affirmative action allows blacks to wallow in self-pity and allows them to capitalize on injustices that happened hundreds of years ago (A Negative Vote of Affirmative Action).
Some people may believe that affirmative action levels the playing field (A Negative Vote of Affirmative Action). Some think the playing field is tilted in favor of white students. I don’t believe this. I believe that white students have to work hard in school if they want to go to college. I go to a school where three to four hours of homework each night it expected. It’s not fun, family time suffers, and I have little social life, but the promised rewards of college far exceed the sacrifices I am making. Black or white, hard work is required of us if we want to be accepted into college. Black people should not be allowed to goof off during high school and expect special treatment from admissions boards. When both black and white students work equally as hard to earn their spots in college, the playing field has been equalized.
Another argument some may have in favor of affirmative action is that college admission tests such as the SAT unfairly favor white students. White students may have an advantage because we are exposed to greater vocabulary words at home, or we have benefited from greater life experiences, but take it from a student with learning disabilities, the same tests also discriminate against students like myself. If we start making changes in these tests to benefit black people, can we also make changes to benefit students with learning disabilities? What about white students who come from underprivileged homes? What changes are we going to make to accommodate them? There may be problems with college entrance tests, but these problems have nothing to do with the color of our skin. These problems encompass far more than the simple issues of race.
Let us not forget yet another argument affirmative action supporters have. Some believe that blacks should receive special treatment because blacks lead a significantly lesser life than their white counterpart (A Negative Vote on Affirmative Action). This is racial profiling at its best. To lump all black people into this category is like lumping all blondes into one category. Some people say that all blondes are stupid, or all redheads are hotheaded. Lumping people into categories based upon coloring makes no sense. Blondes have to earn respect, redheads have to earn respect, and black people are no exception. Respect must be earned be each of us, equally.
In conclusion, hard work, good grades, and a fierce determination should be considered when colleges and universities choose their freshman classes, not race. Affirmative action is wrong. I agree that society does tend to stereotype different racial groups, and these stereotypes are wrong. But, people overcome these stereotypes everyday. Blacks need to learn from an early age that they are smart, determined, and worthy of college. They need to work hard and know that that hard work will make a difference. They need to experience the same sense of pride that white students feel when the college or university of their choice accepts them. They need to feel the same sense of accomplishment. Once they do, then they will truly know what equality feels like.