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It is early spring and the most popular spot for high-school seniors is the mailbox. The most coveted possession of eighteen-year-olds is a thick envelope, emblazoned with borderline cheesy congratulatory-type slogans; inside are glossy photos, crisp type font, and the feeling of acknowledgement of years and years of hard work paying off. After months of scrutinizing grades, listing accolades, and writing and rewriting show-offy essays, students nationwide have contrived grandiose images of perfect college lives. And if each student has worked his hardest to achieve these dreams, he has a right to them, right? It is not as clear as it sounds. In fact, many high school students receive much thinner envelopes filled with the words “we regret to inform you…” coupled with sinking disappointment and lowered self-worth. But not because of any of their doing – because a much less qualified student took their presumably rightful spots because of the minority classes they belong to. How is this okay? Perhaps it is because the accepted student was the best at his inner-city school, worked two jobs instead of joining clubs, and took the few Honors- and AP-courses the school offered.
Of course he could never compare to more privileged students, who have access to SAT tutoring, extra-curriculars, sports, clubs, societies, any and all padding a resume could want. It is clear that the two cannot be compared on the same scale. Affirmative action is a measure that must exist within the college admissions process. However, the current measures must be reformed.
Of course, grades are often not the only thing that matters, but disregarding race and class completely is unlikely and ineffective.
The idea of affirmative action was first brought to the public eye around 1935 by Congress, who enacted the National Labor Relations Act to protect the “rights of employees and employers”. President John F. Kennedy would later refer back to the term; his Executive Order 10925 demanded that all applicants to jobs are employed and treated the same regardless of “race, creed, color, or national origin.” President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 encouraged workers to take “affirmative action” when hiring, amidst the civil rights crisis. In modern society, the term most likely refers to college admissions. Congress saw affirmative action necessary in 1995. Plainly said, affirmative action refers to a “set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination between applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future”. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity is currently responsible for the maintenance of the non-discrimination policy for universities and regarding academic and staff employment (Evolution). In simpler terms, affirmative action in the case of higher education means that there are different scales for applicants to be judged upon, taking into consideration race, socioeconomic class, etc. A student who had fewer opportunities stands no chance against a more privileged student.
Yet not everyone agrees with the institution of this policy. One student disagreed so fervently that her case was brought before the Supreme Court. Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Texas, applied to the state’s university and was denied admission. According to her claims, a minority student took her spot at the college. Fisher claims that the admissions board employed the use of “reverse racism” by discriminating in favor of minorities. She claims that the board’s rejection of her application was not only prejudiced, but unlawful. The solution, in the opinion of Ms. Fisher and of many conservatives, would be to eliminate race from the application altogether and “let the best student win.” Sherrilyn Ifill, New York Times author of “Race vs. Class: The False Dichotomy” alludes the belief of many liberals that affirmative action should be based solely on class and not on race. A lot of the support for this argument comes from the idea that race cannot still matter that much, not while we have a black president in office and both Asian and Hispanic presidential candidates. However, we cannot look at it in such black-and-white terms. Of course Abigail Fisher was frustrated, to say the least, with her rejection from her college, as many if not all students would be. But we have to acknowledge the fact that yes, absolutely, race still matters. Have we come far with racial issues? From a legal perspective, yes – Jim Crow laws have long since been abolished, segregation is illegal, and all races have equal rights under the Constitution. Mentally, however, race is still an issue, as much as we would like to believe it isn’t. In tackling issues such as affirmative action, we must first ask why race still matters, how it ever became a problem, and where we can go from here.
Let us first unpack the topics of race and class. The two are not synonymous, nor should they be likened to each other. But the fact that the two must coexist cannot be denied. The two are not separate realms; in fact, one directly affects the other. If we trace our history back to the advent of the country, perhaps we can discover why there was ever a chasm between races. This is exactly James Baldwin’s objective in his piece “On Being White…and Other Lies” in which he accuses the white man of not daring to think of the “ravage and the lie of [his] history”, blessed with the ideal of “safety” that the black man will never have (137). Using Baldwin’s piece, we can decipher the meaning of the word “white.” He states that people “became white” by “denying the black presence”; and that by denying their own culture, their own societies, and in striving to be more white, blacks became white too. In this sense, the word white becomes more of a destination rather than a race. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a heart-wrenching “Letter to My Son”, describes in excruciating detail the plight of the black man, and now, the black boy. “But however [their power] appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white,” he writes, “and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.” Baldwin and Coates present it as an idea, saying that there are no actual white people; the act of rising up, being prosperous, being ignorant of oppression, is synonymous with the word “white” itself.
But from where does this oppression stem? Author Herbert J. Gans, centuries ago. In “Race and Class”, Gans, in agreement with Baldwin, displays skin color as a complete social construct (18). The country’s initial power-holders were white; because they held the power in governments, national and local, they formed the point at the top of the hierarchy. Below them, at first, were the lesser developed Native Americans, and then eventually slaves. The distinction of color did not become of the utmost importance until the slave era decades after, when the only reasonable explanation for oppression was in fact the pigmentation of their skin. After slavery ended, the dark-skinned population remained working on farms, or otherwise as indentured servants, indefinitely stuck in the lower level of the hierarchy where their ancestors and descendants alike would reside (18). Gans also agrees with Baldwin’s proposal of “becoming white”, using the example of the post-1965 Asian immigrants, the lower-class of which was considered “yellow”. In contrast, the high-class Asian immigrants of today’s society are hardly regarded as such. Gans goes as far as to call them “honorary whites”, up at the top of the racial hierarchical structure our country seems to be stuck in.
So if Gans, Coates, and Baldwin are all correct, and in order to be considered alongside whites you must be prosperous, why can’t blacks reach the same heights? It isn’t difficult, right? Actually, the complete opposite. Not only are blacks not up on the same scale as whites, but it is predicted that they never will be. Gans points out that because color is a “social construct”, it can be reconstructed; it was reconstructed in the case of Asian immigrants, who eventually made more in income than the white man between 1998 and 2000 (19). Nevertheless, the fact is that class has almost everything to do with race. That is not to say there are not poor whites and rich blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans; but we cannot say the two exist in completely parallel lines, never intersecting. We cannot say that the two are non-intersecting when the poverty rate of blacks is 23.9% and of whites it is 7.8%; how can we deny the factual evidence that the median household income for an African-American family is more than $16,000 less than whites’ income? The explanation for this is that minorities are perpetually stuck in lower-paying jobs that will accept applicants with minimal education. And the reason for their minimal education is that their applicants did not compare to those of the more privileged students. Color blindness is a myth. We cannot operate admissions boards in this way.
Though this data might seem a bit old, almost twenty years, and slavery ended decades ago, we cannot say that race does not matter anymore. In fact, race may matter now more than ever. Ifill says it “matters” in the encounters of white cops and black boys, it “matters” if your name is “Leslie or Lakeisha” on a resume, and it “matters” in trying to get affordable housing. It is impossible to ignore the shouts of the candidates, calling for closing of borders to nationalities and religions, and say where you come from or what you look like no longer matters. Of course an inner-city student could not compare to Abigail Fisher. We cannot expect him to. Nor would he have ever had the opportunity to attend University of Texas, or Yale, or NYU, or any other school of prestige. But we do have the responsibility to approach the possibility that perhaps the fault is on no one in particular. Can we blame Fisher? Most likely not; her resume was pristine. Can we blame the student who took her spot? Of course not; the fault is not his for what his parents could afford in terms of school districts and education, and he did the best he could. But if no one is to blame, what is there to do?
The issue of affirmative actions delves much deeper than education. Yet we must find a medium between justice for one and injustice for many. In accepting Ms. Fisher, we would be doing a massive disservice to the many inner-city students looking for a way out; we would be perpetually stuck in a cycle where under-privileged students get minimum wage jobs and have children born into the same cycle. In denying Ms. Fisher, we similarly do a disservice to society, as Ifill says, in instilling stereotypes that “all whites are rich [and] all blacks are poor” (1). There must be a common ground where supporters and denouncers of affirmative action can come to a compromise, so the hard work of both privileged and underprivileged students can be rewarded and acknowledged in the same fashion. We have already established the fact that affirmative action must exist in order to even the playing field across races and classes. Ideas of special selection have arisen, claims Boston University’s Glenn Louvry, that often end in patronization, or “setting a lower standard for blacks than for whites because of the belief that blacks are not as capable of meeting a higher, common standard.” Louvry also confirms the fact that many college campuses do wish to have a diverse community, and therefore will accept minorities for want of variety. But in lowering the standards for certain groups, how does that even out the playing field? Is it not doing the exact opposite? “Preferential treatment based on race should not become institutionalized…there is no achievement to which they cannot legitimately aspire” claims Louvry of his African-American sons. He claims that funding the proper programs to help out underprivileged students would give them the incentive to match their white peers (5).
Louvry mentions multiple times the middle-class state of his being, meaning that he is already trumping the majority of his minority counterparts based on his income. In a Bloomberg View article, author Michael Petrilli states that government funds to help disadvantaged high schoolers prepare for college made “no apparent difference”, going so far as to say that higher education is “spectacularly bad at affirmative action” (1). Petrilli claims that the University of Virginia sent packets of information about universities out to a random selection of low-income high-brow students, and they ended up being 80 percent more likely to gain admission to a selective college than the ones who were without the information (7). He even claims that to send such information out would cost “less than $100,000”, and for any student or family paying a tuition, it is clear how little colleges would be spending.
In whichever lens we choose to view it under, affirmative action is an issue that must be reformed now, as colleges become more selective and the lesser qualified students get left in the dust. As a nation, we must have education systems that value hard work but also take into consideration things beyond the application, things that cannot be changed. If Louvry is right, and all minorities need is encouragement and incentive to compete with more privileged students, and Petrilli’s UVA method works on other schools, then the ball is apparently in higher education’s court. How they choose to reform the policies remain to be seen. Yet on the eve of the Fisher v. University of Texas decision, and on the brink of another beginning school year, we can only hope that in being in touch with our history, we can also be fair, and therefore bridge gaps between races and classes to form one unified, diverse, talented graduating class. Who knows what they might achieve.
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