The Case for Race

News & Politics
Affirmative ActionAs a Black American, I have disliked affirmative action for years. I mean, how could colleges admit Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans with lower grades and scores, but turn away better qualified Whites and Asians? To me, it seemed like blatant racial discrimination. Why should colleges and universities "lower standards" for minority applicants? It seemed to me that affirmative action allowed exactly the kind of unequal treatment people have been fighting against in the civil rights movement for thirty years.

I thought that affirmative action went against the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution provides in the 14th Amendment that persons shall not be discriminated against based on race, sex, creed, or ethnicity. I used to agree with those who think the Constitution is a "color-blind" document and those who think Americans should consider race as an irrelevant issue to ensure equality for all. But is the Constitution really color-blind? Is race really irrelevant in America? I don't think so.

Most of all, I opposed affirmative action because to a certain extent I believed it diminished my accomplishments as a minority. Being a Black American, I didn't want to face charges of being unqualified, unworthy, and unwelcomed. I'm really conscious of people looking at me and saying behind my back, "She only got into this school because she's Black."

For the past few months, I have been doing a lot of reading on affirmative action, and it has ultimately changed my opinion of the policy. With so much racial inequality still in America, policies like affirmative action level the playing field and actually make our society more just. Remember, it wasn't too long ago when people of color were barred from even applying to colleges, universities and certain jobs because they were minorities.

I read a speech by former President Lyndon Johnson that really influenced my change of opinion. In a speech to Howard University about affirmative action in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson stated, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." Johnson's assertion had a significant impact on affirmative action policies in the 1970s, and ultimately has changed the minds of many Americans -- including mine -- on the subject. Now I look at affirmative action as a kind of compensation for past discrimination like slavery or legal segregation.

Just how equal are minorities being treated in America today anyway? We live in a world with linguistic profiling -- you know, like when people turn you down for jobs on the phone because they think you're Black or Latino from the way you talk. Things like racial profiling happen daily when the police pull over Black men in nice cars because they look "suspicious." Notice that the mostly White suburban schools have better resources than the mostly Black and Latino inner-city schools that lack teachers and safe facilities.

Racism today is not as obvious as it was in the past -- there aren't people of color drinking from different water fountains. But when I open my eyes and honestly look around at the world around me, I see that racial inequality still exists.

A common misconception that many people have about affirmative action is that it lowers the standards for Black, Latino, and Native American students in the college application process. The petitioners/plaintiffs in the case against the University of Michigan claim that affirmative action lowers admissions standards for minority applicants, which creates hostilities between White and minority students. However, the data sheet on the University of Michigan's undergraduate program website cites that White students who were admitted to the University of Michigan had an average GPA lower than that of Black students. Also, over the past ten years, the acceptance rate for Caucasian/White students -- meaning the percentage of applicants from a particular ethnic group that are accepted -- at the UM Law School was still higher than the acceptance rate for Black or Latino students, and was second only to the rate of acceptance for Native American students (who still only make up 2 percent of the student population). It's important to step back from the argument to recognize that even with affirmative action policies in place, the University of Michigan is still more than 70 percent White.

Many students at my school abhor affirmative action in one hand, but when it comes to asking one of daddy's friends on Columbia's Board of Trustees for a favor -- you can bet they start believing in preferences.

Unfortunately, in 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative which said that race could not be considered as a factor for hiring or admissions in any state institution. After the University of California system enacted the ban against affirmative action, schools like UC Berkeley found that the admittance rates of underrepresented minority students dropped by a staggering 14 percent in 1997. The freshman class at UCLA this year has only 281 Blacks out of 10,507 incoming students. The decreasing number of minority students detracts from the learning process for all students because it limits the range of perspectives present in class discussions.

When White, Black, Asian, Latino, Arab, and other students are brought together in a classroom, they can better understand their differences and destroy racist stereotypes that have been so ingrained in our nation's mentality. I met a professor at UCLA who told me affirmative action programs have actually decreased racial hostilities between different groups because of this classroom learning process. When students learn in a more tolerant and diverse environment, everyone benefits from the experience.

I can't imagine being in a class where the discussion is on a particular ethnic group or culture, and there is no one with in-depth knowledge on the subject present. How can a group of all-White students have a serious discussion about slavery, bilingual education, immigration, racism, or even affirmative action without recognizing that they are missing some key perspectives in the argument?

Without diversified student bodies, many minority students (including those at the University of Michigan) are forced to be the "official speakers" for their race. As a Black student at a mostly White high school, I've helped my classmates understand more about the Black experience, but I do get tired of being the "official representative" of my race. My classmates always ask me those "race" questions, like: "Candace, what do you think about the comments in the movie Barbershop?" or "Were you offended by Trent Lott's racist comments?" I don't care if you like Malcolm X, and I'm not interested in hearing your reactions after watching Alex Haley's Roots. Diversity is not only important to the learning process of each student, it also alleviates the pressure on students like me who often have to speak as representatives for our entire race just because we are the only Black, Asian or Latino people in the room.

Minority students might receive a slight preference when they are admitted into a particular institution, but they have to continue to work hard to earn their school grades just like every other student. Furthermore, race is just one of the many preferences that people can have when applying to college.

I couldn't even count the number of students at my school that abhor affirmative action in one hand, but when it comes to asking one of daddy's friends on Columbia's Board of Trustees for a favor -- you can bet they start believing in preferences. I know several students at my high school who know someone admitted to a top university because they had "connections." Schools may give affirmative action to minority students, but regardless of test scores, rich people have always gotten seats in the nation's most selective colleges and universities by relying on insider preferences.

The Wall Street Journal took a look at the practice of "legacy preferences," (a.k.a. White people's affirmative action) in which the children of alumni are admitted to colleges over better-qualified applicants. Some schools like to admit applicants with alumni ties because they get money for doing so. For example, Al Gore and President George W. Bush have fathers who attended Harvard and Yale, respectively. When applying for college, both Al and George had SAT scores lower than 1300 and bad grades from the prep schools they attended. But the fact that their fathers, who were U.S. Senators, generously gave Harvard and Yale buckets of cash for alumni funds was given a higher priority during the selection process than their academic qualifications as students.

It's clear to me that everyone gets a share of preferences. So if wealthy people, athletes, legacy applicants, and poor people are all given preferences, why can't underrepresented minorities also get a little consideration? Getting into college is never solely based on one's academic merit. Grades and test scores are important, but what a student can bring to a university community can sometimes be even more significant.

Candace Coleman, 17, is a student at Marymount High School in Los Angeles.

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