As I rode down to Washington, D.C., on the bus Tuesday for the affirmative action rally, the possibly tremendous consequences of the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases began to sink into me. What could the court’s decision mean for the future of any type of program, scholarship or admissions process geared towards students of color? The possible answers scared me as I imagined the slippery slope the decision could potentially create, starting with affirmative action and going who knows where in striking down the gains people have struggled so hard for over the years.
But then I arrived in front of the Supreme Court and was encouraged by the thousands of people with whom I stood in solidarity. Later in the afternoon, as the steps of the Lincoln Memorial filled up, I finally got a full sense of how many people I was protesting with that day. I started believing that maybe Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow was right when she had told the crowd earlier that the justices inside the court knew we were out here and they were listening to us.
Unfortunately, in the last two days since returning from D.C., my optimism has started to fade. It was disheartening to read both Alexis Sathre’s and Mary Elizabeth Rehm’s guest columns in the Yale Daily News on Wednesday. Sathre wanted to make us all aware that affirmative action is not just for racial minorities, as she thinks was implied by the students of color who participated in the day of silence earlier this week. Sathre also shared with us that she supports affirmative action “only when privilege, not color, is the main criterion.”
Rehm similarly denounced the use of race in affirmative action. Despite the challenges she has faced in life, she said, “I don’t get special consideration because I’m white.” She argued that if anything is to be considered to measure disadvantage, it should be income. Rehm believes that minorities could make the same or greater impact without affirmative action.
Sathre is absolutely right that affirmative action programs benefit many groups of people by considering several different factors. Yet the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs are coming under attack only because of the race criterion. Affirmative action programs at various institutions were instituted to help those people who face unfair challenges that should not bar them from being admitted to college. While everyone seems to accept the existence of challenges such as sexism and economic inequalities, there is a thick film of ignorance when it comes to racism. The reality, however, is that racism still exists.
I would hope that among the basic things we come away with during our time at Yale is an understanding of the social realities faced by different groups of people. This is not a colorblind society. This is evident everywhere you look: inner cities have predominantly minority populations where children have to attend public schools with few resources and a poorer quality of education; few people of color can be seen in the highest ranks of private corporations; and blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 49 percent of those in prison.
Class alone does not account for these disparities. Even when researchers fix for socioeconomic status, people of color come out on the bottom as has clearly been documented, for example, in health care quality and access studies. Numerous accounts can be given of wealthy, well-educated black families being unwelcome in white neighborhoods purely because of the color of their skin. Such racist practices prevent even wealthier minorities from having access to the same educational resources as their white counterparts.
Opponents of affirmative action argue that the quality of education decreases with affirmative action or, as the two girls filing the lawsuits against University of Michigan claim, that it is reverse discrimination. As for the first point, there is no way anyone can argue that the presence of students of color in their classes does not enrich an educational experience. The second point is not rational. Under the undergraduate point system at Michigan, points are given to rural students, legacies, students whose parents have donated a lot of money, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Any person from one of these point categories could have taken the place of Jennifer Gratz, the white undergraduate applicant suing the school. In fact, according to “The Shape of the River” authors William Bowen and Derek Bok, even if these universities used completely race-blind admissions programs, the acceptance rate of white students would only go up 1.2 percent.
And a race-blind system can drastically hurt minorities. For example, following a ban on racial preferences in education in California under Proposition 209, the number of blacks accepted to UC Berkeley dropped to 191 from 562 the previous year. Latino student acceptance dropped from over 1,200 to just 600. This is an example of what could happen to minority student enrollment in colleges across the country should the Supreme Court decide against the University of Michigan.
Furthermore, according to a March 30, 2003 New York Times article, in the weeks before the cases were even heard, schools such as the University of Virginia, Princeton and MIT began changing other programs. They started canceling summer programs and scholarships for minority students or opening them to white students due to pressure from anti-affirmative action groups such as The Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute. At Yale, students are also growing concerned that essential programs such as the ethnic counselor program, the cultural centers, and Cultural Connections are also in danger.
Affirmative action for minorities is necessary to counter the many inequalities that still exist, to ensure diversity on our campuses, and to preserve programs that are important to student life. As we wait to hear the Supreme Court decision, I will continue to wonder whether this country is about to take a dangerous step towards erasing the existence of racial inequalities from its consciousness.
Sangini Shah is a senior in Morse College.