This spring, for the first time since 1978, the Supreme Court will issue a new ruling on affirmative action in higher education — the practice of granting special treatment to blacks and Latinos in college admissions. As the hearing dates draw nearer, countless students, Dwight Hall groups and faculty members — ranging from the pan-ethnic coalition to John Gaddis and Cynthia Farrar — will probably convene teach-ins and panel discussions on affirmative action.
I will not attend any of them.
I have the same problem with the debate over affirmative action as I did with the debate over sweatshop issues during my freshman year. These issues receive inordinate amounts of attention not because they matter significantly in the fight against poverty and inhumanity, but because they revolve around sensitive topics: labor rights in the case of sweatshops, and race in the case of affirmative action.
When it comes to helping developing countries, I’d rather devote my time to fighting AIDS in Africa. And when it comes to affirmative action, I’d rather devote my time to fixing the nation’s broken public school system. This would help disadvantaged minorities lift themselves out of poverty — which I see as the real goal of affirmative action — to a much greater degree than convening a panel discussion on affirmative action.
Granted, affirmative action does have a role to play. It lends a helping hand to disadvantaged minorities, especially when one moves past the Ivy League and onto state schools in Texas, Florida or Alabama. For me, this benefit outweighs the policy’s drawbacks.
But I understand why some would disagree. Affirmative action does have its flaws. It devalues the achievements of blacks and Latinos because it creates the impression that minorities have been accepted into the best schools, have landed top jobs, and have become secretary of state as a result of special treatment. In actuality, they may have earned their accomplishments entirely independent of affirmative action. At many schools, the policy disproportionately benefits middle- to upper-class blacks and Latinos — students who hardly fall into the category of underprivileged minorities. And at its core, the policy amounts to overt discrimination.
But I can’t understand how anyone can oppose affirmative action and yet turn a blind eye to the dire state of America’s primary and secondary school system, of which many victims are black and Latino. Almost one-fifth of American pupils drop out of high school and never return. In a recent study by the OECD, an international group representing developed countries, America ranked 23rd in terms of graduation rates. Of those who do graduate and move onto college, one-third enroll in a remedial math, reading or writing class before taking regular courses.
The United States tolerates educational inequalities unheard of in most developed nations. Black 9-year-olds lag behind whites by 16 percentage points in reading. Latinos lag by 13 points. Almost a quarter of black male students in inner cities are permanently assigned to classes for the handicapped. About the same percentage never graduate from high school at all.
Sadly, affirmative action does little to correct these problems. By the time disadvantaged students have reached their junior or senior year of high school and apply to college, one letter of acceptance cannot undo a lifetime of subpar education.
Yet the little that affirmative action does is better than nothing at all. And that brings us to the Bush administration. Last week, Bush issued a brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Michigan’s policies, calling Michigan’s points system a “wrong of racial prejudice” that “unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.”
Yet Bush has done little to prevent America’s educational system from rewarding or penalizing students based on their household income or the neighborhood they live in. He has starved state governments, which allocate funding for education, of much-needed aid during the recent budget crises. Federal education spending has grown an average of 13.4 percent for the past six years, but Bush has proposed an increase of just 2.8 percent for next year.
So long as he continues to focus on the wars on terror and Iraq and ignore his education promises, disadvantaged minorities will continue to attend incubators of violence and drug-peddling. In other words, poor black and Latino students will continue to be discriminated against and have their educational opportunities restricted because of their economic backgrounds. They have as much control over these factors as white students do over the color of their skin. And the discrimination they face is much more destructive than the discrimination faced by the white students suing the University of Michigan.
When it comes to America’s educational landscape, supporters of affirmative action are only trying to level an extremely unequal playing field. That unequal playing field is the problem, and sadly, affirmative action can play only a very small role in the ultimate solution. In the end, we must focus on other ways of equalizing educational opportunities for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, long before they start applying to college. And if, by any chance, we are ever successful, then we can appease both sides of the affirmative action debate, because at that point affirmative action will no longer be necessary.
Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.