Column: Affirming affirmative action

In his book “Recruiting and Hiring Minority Employees” Richard Young writes, “Government neutrality in the area of (black America) is the moral equivalent of approving past racist crimes.” Affirmative action means taking positive steps to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence and to create new opportunities that were previously denied to qualified minorities and women. This week the Supreme Court will begin deciding whether race can still be a factor in college admissions. If they decide to outlaw race as a consideration they will be ignoring the persisting inequalities in America and the need for our society to address them.

According to the latest census, African American families are three times more likely to live below the poverty line than white families. Thousands of predominately African-American and Hispanic high schools around the country function with tighter budgets, less qualified teachers and physically deteriorated buildings. Why is it outrageous to say that someone who earned a 3.0 at an impoverished school has as much merit as someone who earned a 3.3 at a posh private preparatory institution? Many see a concept like GPA as an indisputable representative of merit. This does not take into account the vast disparities that exist in the American educational institutions today.

Some might argue, why should middle class blacks get affirmative action but not poor whites? Yet, this is not just about class, though residential segregation and wage and job discrimination explain why many of our poorest neighborhoods are often predominantly minority. Racism still pervades all avenues of American life. In fact, racism against blacks at predominantly white schools can be a tremendous burden for those students to overcome. For those in the majority group who doubt this is real, consider columnist Clarence Page’s words, “Privilege is least apparent to those who have it.”

It is also naive, and perhaps racist, to single affirmative action out as if it were the only nonacademic factor in admissions decisions. Two years ago Yale University’s own newspaper documented how children of alumni are about twice as likely as other applicants to be admitted. For Harvard the rate was more than four times as high. Because African Americans have only had large-scale access to higher education in the last 40 years, those kinds of legacies and traditions are almost impossible to have.

A recent New York Times editorial by Nicholas D. Kristof also dissected more hypocrisy in the anti-affirmative action camp. When George W. Bush applied to Phillips Academy, the school had point system similar to that of the University of Michigan. Kristof showed how Bush received a larger advantage for being the son of an alumnus than any African American would receive because of their race when applying to the University of Michigan. Thus our president was more of a beneficiary of a form of affirmative action than any black applicant to Michigan was.

Affirmative action should be seen as a great benefit to our nation. “Minorities” will soon be the majority and it will be a great impediment to our national ability to compete in a global market if we are not taking great strides to educate half our country. But on a more moral level, diversity at our nation’s schools is needed to foster better race relations. There are many people at GW who went to high schools made up of few or no people of different backgrounds than themselves. Do we want college to be the same way? A diverse student body, through communication and interaction, can help break down stereotypes and reveal our common humanity.

Universities should be a place where young people can have this necessary interface, which will be better for America in the long run. California, Florida and Texas have ended affirmative action in their public university systems and replaced it with percentage plans.

In Texas the top 10 percent of every high school are admitted to a public college. This means achieving diversity is cynically playing on the segregated high schools of the state and allows minorities to be railroaded into the less prestigious schools in the state college system.

Most troubling is the result of these changes, which is lower minority enrollment, especially in the state flagship schools on the undergraduate and graduate levels. The comprehensive new Harvard Civil Rights Project report on percentage plans shows how ineffective this alternative is compared to traditional race-based policies. If the Supreme Court follows the example of these states we will see terrible consequences in our nation’s struggle to live up to the promises of the civil rights era.

-The writer is a sophomore majoring in American studies and political action chair of GW’s NAACP.

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