Plenty of people have told me I got into Yale because I was Black. While I prefer to think it was because I was smarter than the average high school senior and that being a Black male who wasn’t dead or incarcerated was icing on the cake, I could see where a person might make the above argument. And I couldn’t care less. I deserved to be here and, the way I’ve generally figured it is, it’s about damn time being a Black man in America worked to someone’s advantage.

That’s why reading about Jian Li’s civil rights case against Princeton pissed me off. As a member of a racial minority well-represented in the college ranks, did he really have the gall to bring suit on the grounds of racial discrimination? Did he really think affirmative action, a system meant to benefit people like himself, was giving him short shrift?

I was, as my mother might say, too through and took it upon myself to write an opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian in which I took him to task for disrespecting the struggles others went through so he could even bring such a suit. I dressed him down for indirectly belittling the Asian-American applicants who had been admitted to Princeton and I generally let him have it for being a freshman punk who needed to be a few more months removed from the senior prom before trying to shake the foundations of certain institutional practices.

The feedback was immediate. Some people thought I hit the nail right on the head. Others wanted to hit me in the head with a hammer. After corresponding with one Princeton alum who did not begin his e-mail with Dear Asshole or Greetings Herr Hitler, I decided to e-mail Jian myself. I figured since I’d already smashed him in the paper, now was as good a time as any to make sure my dismissal of his case was on track.

So we met. And we talked about his argument and his case. I have to admit: the meeting was terrible. I was placed in the unfortunate position of listening to a compelling argument that is certainly more persuasive in person than in quotes from the newspaper. While we disagreed on certain points — I wasn’t sold on the merits of his particular case and he also used that dangerous “should” word frequently — I was forced to reexamine my argument. While I didn’t agree with the angle he was taking with his argument, I found myself appreciating the spirit of it. Regrettably, I had to acknowledge that he’s a decent kid who deserved a lot more respect than he got from me and others.

When I got home, I couldn’t get one of Jian’s questions out of my head: Why does race still matter? After much thought and conversation, I came to this: Race still matters because the positive gains in policy do not directly parallel changes in certain attitudes and beliefs; they’re close, but equilibrium has yet to be found. It’s dangerous to conflate the success of integration — namely the laws that facilitated it — with the eradication of racism itself.

Civil rights legislation and integration did do a good job of dismantling overt, state-sanctioned racism — Jim Crow, Segregation, “separate but equal” — which in turn did an admirable job of combating and eliminating some racial prejudices and tactics of discrimination within the society. But we must caution ourselves against the belief that all these prejudiced notions and tactics are artifacts from a bygone era. It is true that they do not flourish as they once did; indeed, they are, in public, socially unacceptable, but as Verbal Kint might say, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Civil rights gains have meant business owners cannot post a sign saying “Blacks/Asians/Latinos need not apply” because it is against the law, but this reality does not mean that no one would if they could.

Something for you to consider: Over four and a half centuries, America has shown a history of discrimination against certain ethnic groups within the population. This goes for Native Americans, Africans, Irish, Slavs, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Japanese and Latinos. Over the course of those same four centuries, some groups were essentially exterminated while others were absorbed into the mainstream American fold or, to say it plainly, these groups became white (We sometimes forget that racial perceptions change over time. At the turn of the 20th century, “white people” were one thing while Irish, Italian, Russian, etcetera, were quite another.)

Those groups that could not be absorbed, whether because of their name or what was thought of people that looked as they did, remained on the societal margins and suffered. However, over the course of these four-plus centuries, progress was made, big and small, both in tangible social policies and in conceptions of race. Still, it took 450 years to reach the Civil Rights moment and align attitudes and notions, begrudging or not, in such a way that major goals could be realized. 450 years. Why do we assume that the 40 years that followed this milestone could so radically revise 450 years of bad work?

Post-Civil Rights policies are given the double burden of not only changing 450 years of poor policy, but also 450 years of preconceived notions, which are much more difficult to root out. And yet some expect this change to be affected immediately by virtue of the fact that these civil right policies exist. Because of the dynamic times in which they fell, these policies have been burdened with the expectation that they will change people’s minds, regardless of whether or not people actually change. The policies got the ball rolling but people haven’t kept that momentum going as much as they like to think.

Race-based affirmative action in education is attempting to mitigate the effects of history, both in institutionalized racism and the personal prejudice which still exists in this country. It’s not a cure-all. I don’t think that everyone who admits students of color using race as a factor is incapable of harboring personal prejudice. I also don’t think it’s wise to assume that such prejudice is an utter impossibility just because harboring such feelings is considered socially unacceptable.

Affirmative action was put in place so that those in power had to give more consideration to playing fair when it came to underrepresented groups. At the time, if you were a person of color, it’s very likely you were poor and disadvantaged, and you had probably been so for quite some time. Senses of entitlement: entitlement to resources, entitlement to opportunity and entitlement to the belief that one could be upwardly mobile in the society were almost nowhere to be found for those on society’s margins.

In its first phase, affirmative action addressed that. According to my old man, who had the (mis)fortune of living through this first phase, the argument for affirmative action essentially boiled down to this: affirmative action gave people with ability but little opportunity a chance to feel entitled. Many of those given the chance made good on the opportunity. In some ways, they made too good on it. One of affirmative action’s crippling side effects is that it created too great a sense of progress, especially outside communities that did not benefit from it. Successes were heralded while the growing disconnect between those who had made it and those who were still trying to find their way was largely ignored.

As affirmative action progressed, race became less “easy.” Being of color did not necessarily mean being of poverty and while people on both sides of the issue recognized this fact, they often did so wrongly. Because affirmative action is the squared circle where the races often slug it out, some said, “See, now these groups are doing well. They don’t need the help anymore.” Others countered, saying, “Some are doing
well, but disadvantage within the society is still falling along (only) racial lines.” As it stands right now, I think neither argument is any good.

Affirmative action’s current inefficiency is less a reflection of its innate inadequacy and more serves as proof that people, myself included, have lost touch with the nature of modern disadvantage in our society. The first phase of affirmative action worked well enough that many of us don’t have a grasp on what modern disadvantage really is.

I certainly don’t know it in the way my father and mother did. That’s one of the dangers of the situation. Because the children of the formerly disadvantaged don’t know the hardships that their parents experienced (while those of means, children and parents alike, have often never known hardship), there’s a perception that it either no longer exists or that it exists in the same way that it always has. I’m finding that both arguments are off-base. To believe disadvantage is a fiction is a stupidity I won’t even begin to address here. Still, thinking disadvantage is as it always was is inaccurate as well.

There aren’t just (poor) Black/Asian/Latino people; there are now SOME Black/Asian/Latino people doing alright and MANY Black/Asian/Latino people doing very poorly. But when the groups are conflated, the poor among them suffer. To use my own personal circumstance, while being a Black male in America has historical obstacles that I’m forced to deal with constantly and that add, I believe, a degree of disadvantage to my life, I couldn’t contend that my disadvantage is identical to that of those that affirmative action aims to represent. Black I am, rich I ain’t, worse off many are.

The strides made by the formerly disadvantaged and their children do not necessarily translate perfectly across decades and poverty lines. And while these strides are worthy of praise, we cannot become complacent. Just because some people make it doesn’t mean the job is over. The task requires that we remain flexible and able to improve with the changing times.

I can’t say my mind was completely changed. But it’s a beautiful thing when two people from different backgrounds can disagree in a meeting of the minds. The conversation forced me to remember that closing our eyes and minds can result in our being lost. There are still people with ability and little advantage. There are still people that deserve to know advantage and entitlement. Maybe they’re just not exactly where we thought. What up to Donny Hathaway. Peace to Jian Li.

Jon Pitts-Wiley wants to talk to you. Just don’t mention affirmative action.