Yesterday Yale students organized a vow of silence to show support for affirmative action. Students wore stickers explaining that their vows of silence were in support of affirmative action now that the Supreme Court is hearing two cases coming out of the University of Michigan. Monday’s action was intended to be a symbolic message, showing that the ethnic community and large segments of the white community stood together on this issue. Unfortunately, the vow of silence was a misguided attempt since it failed to engage students in the meaningful discourse a topic like affirmative action deserves.
I witnessed one participant try to convince other students to participate in the vow of silence and to wear stickers explaining their action. But since she too was taking part in the vow of silence, she could only communicate with hand gestures. When one student refused to take part in the vow because she did not support affirmative action, believing it was unfair to poor whites, the participant was unable to speak in response or offer any rebuttals to the argument.
This scene is at the heart of why the vow of silence was misguided. When given the opportunity to interact and discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action with reasonable college students, participants of the vow of silence instead decided that their wholehearted support of affirmative action needed no explanation and wasted a valuable opportunity to change minds.
Since the participants were unable to talk about their opinions, onlookers could only read the stickers to gain any insight on the reasoning of the participants. The sticker began, “Today I have taken a vow of silence to support affirmative action,” and did not discuss what parts of affirmative action the participant supported. By organizing a vow of silence, ethnic group leaders address the many nuances of affirmative action programs across the country and the questions that arise from them. For instance, do these students consider legacy preferences — a system that overwhelmingly benefits white applicants — part of affirmative action? Or, do these students believe that affirmative action might hurt overrepresented minorities, like Asian Americans? Or how about the stigmatizing effect affirmative action often has on qualified African-American students? None of these issues could be discussed because a vow of silence requires that all participants relinquish their ability to communicate their opinions, effectively killing any meaningful discourse on a day students were attempting to make a powerful statement.
As a symbolic gesture, the vow of silence was supposed to simulate what the University would look like without affirmative action. No minority voices would be heard. But not all minority students agree with affirmative action, and many chose not to participate, undermining any ethnic solidarity that organizers of the vow would have hoped for. Even in the unlikely case that every minority student on campus took a vow of silence, this would have been unrealistic depiction of what Yale would look like in the future. The days of all-white, all-male Yale are over, and no matter how hard some people may try, diversity at Yale will remain.
The vow of silence was orchestrated by various ethnic organizations that could have used their resources in a more meaningful way. These groups could have put on a panel discussion with knowledgeable faculty answering questions from the audience. In a format like this, students could learn the facts of the 1978 Bakke decision and the details of the University of Michigan cases while asking panelists questions about affirmative action. Another possible action ethnic organizations could have considered is petitioning outside of dining halls. Hell, even a hunger strike would have allowed participants to express their ideas more effectively than a vow of silence. Affirmative action is an issue that needs to be discussed thoroughly with rationality and words, not in silence.
Don Phan is a sophomore in Pierson College. He is the former chairman of the Political Action Committee of the Asian American Student Alliance.