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I’ve read several diaries and articles recently about affirmative action. This being a liberal site, it’s pretty clear we all recognize the need for it, the inequalities it was designed to correct, and the disbelief that any right-thinking person would disagree with its basic premise. A few of the diaries have even gone further in expressing all of that, they have succinctly described how affirmative action benefits each and every one of us regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender – which is true and important to keep in mind. A diverse workplace and learning environment has the potential to provide a wider range of ideas, skills, and perspectives that we all profit from. Yet, I believe it’s also crucial to understand that affirmative action is something in which we all have to consciously participate every single day, each of us in our own life, regardless of whether we think we perceive any immediate effects from it or not. One of the aspects of affirmative action that I think often gets overlooked is that the actual ultimate gains won't be realized if we don't make any attempt to acknowlege our direct role in the process.

This is an undeniably controversial and complex topic that conjures up different things for different people. The two words together "affirmative action" (the term as we now know it) were first uttered by President Kennedy in 1961. The policy, itself, was then developed and implemented by the Johnson administration through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in 1965 in Executive Order 11246 which mandated that employers use it in regard to employment. In 1967, the Executive Order was amended to include protections for women. Many of us believe it is a necessary policy to ensure that minorities, women, and the disabled get fair treatment in the workplace and in access to higher education. But, although some of us believe in the intent of the policy, I think there are still some of us who may not be completely convinced of our own responsibility to ensure that it succeeds.

During the Civil Rights era, people extolled "tolerance" in dealing with others and, likewise, to some people, affirmative action has become a policy that they merely tolerate. I hardly think that tolerance is really praiseworthy. I believe that what we need to work on is deliberate "acceptance". The affirmative part, I think, is easily understood. It means being positive and clear and constructive. The action part is where I believe we tend to fall short. We need to be actively and willfully affirmative in order to make a difference not just in the lives of others but in our own as well.

I am reminded of this topic whenever kos posts excerpts of his hate mail. For those of you who do not have the stomach to partake of the Hate mail-apalooza, most of the messages are hate-filled diatribes which seem to be written by people who are at best uneducated and inarticulate and at worst rabidly racist and perhaps even mentally ill. In response to the excerpts of the messages that kos posts, there are always a couple of comments expressing sympathy for the e-mailers’ apparent unhappiness and possible psychological problems. As I read these comments, I always nod in agreement because I think it is important to try to understand what might be making the people who write those emails write the vile things they do. But frankly, I’m sometimes a little surprised that some of the Daily Kos readers seem to be genuinely shocked by that sort of invective.

As we have clearly seen just in the last few weeks, racism may not be as overt as it was when affirmative action was first put in place (depending, of course, on your direct experience of it) but it still exists. You don’t even have to look for it and you can see it almost every day and sometimes in the most unlikely places. College campuses are often cited as places where affirmative action in the admissions process has been reduced to quotas, preferential treatment, and unfair advantage.  If you didn’t know better, you would think that the nation’s campuses are currently overrun with minorities and that white students are having to forego a college education because of their inability to get accepted to any university. In actuality, national statistics show that, in general, the breakdown by ethnicity of students in degree-granting institutions (both 2-year and 4-year) mirrors the breakdown by ethnicity of the whole population.

White 65.7
Black 12.7
Hispanic 10.8
Asian/Pacific Islander 6.5
American Indian/Alaskan Native 1.0
Non-resident alien 3.3
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2005

White 69.1
Black 12.3
Hispanic 12.5
Asian/Pacific Islander 3.7
American Indian/Alaskan Native .9
2000 United State Census

Although colleges and universities have tried to use affirmative action policies to produce diverse and equitable student populations, it hasn’t been easy. They have had to battle against every conceivable kind of attack and sabotage from Supreme Court decisions all the way down to groups like Ward Connerly’s deceptively named American Civil Rights Institute.

Of course, it doesn’t help when people who should know better promulgate some common fallacies. In an interview 2 years ago, George Stephanopoulos asked then-Senator Obama if his daughters should benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college. Obama said the following:

"The girls should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged. If we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve equality in this society. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and been brought up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. There are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling — even those who are in the middle class may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country."

A couple of things bother me about that question and the quote. One is that, by mentioning affordability, the quote seems to imply that affirmative action is somehow tied to financial aid. Obama seems to be saying that minority students getting admitted to universities are also being given special financial assistance to attend. That may be true at private schools where administrators have private scholarship money that they can use at their discretion.  Unfortunately, however, this is a common misconception among a lot of people when it comes to public colleges and universities. At public post-secondary schools, in order to be considered for financial aid, every student submits an application for federal student aid. There are no questions regarding race or ethnicity on the application and a student’s ethnicity is not a determining factor in the kind of aid he/she ultimately receives. Nationally, the majority of students who receive financial aid for college are white.

The other thing that disturbed me about that exchange is that it also seems to imply that all black students who are in college get admitted through affirmative action programs. The only reason George Stephanopoulos asked the question in the first place is that Obama’s daughters are black. He apparently does not realize that hundreds of minority students actually get admitted to universities every year because of their high test scores and excellent grades. Is he suggesting that Malia and Sasha Obama won’t have the requisite qualifications to get into college without the assistance of an affirmative action program? Like Stephanopoulos, I would venture to guess, most people probably don’t realize that, in general, most affirmative action programs typically target a relatively low number of students whose test scores may be average but who have shown that they are capable of doing well in college in spite of any extenuating difficulties they may have had in high school.

From that quote, many also surmised that Obama was agreeing with Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 statement that affirmative action would probably no longer be necessary in 25 years (even though it hasn't even been in existence for a whole lifetime). I think Obama knows that one generation and "middle-class status" for a few has not made a significant difference when you look at the overall climate of predominantly white college campuses. I often hear people claim that young people nowadays notice race and skin color but that the difference is not a big deal to them. I can only assume these people have not been on a college campus lately. Just because minority students get admitted to a university does not mean they will not face discrimination and racism once they are there. For instance, I don’t think there is a campus in the country that hasn’t been affected by the recent rash of racist college theme parties also known as "ghetto fabulous" or "south of the border" parties. These are costume parties held by white students dressed up to represent negative racial and ethnic stereotypes. In fact, these parties have always existed - they have just recently experienced a whole new level of notoriety through the incredibly offensive pictures posted in various social-networking websites. These gatherings as well as all the other events like affirmative action bake sales and other similar ostensibly "peaceful" protests designed to criticize affirmative action have been reported all across the country and have become such a commonplace occurrence that they seldom make the campus newspapers, much less the national press, anymore. Nevertheless, the effects of this sort of denigration are acutely felt by the minority students it is meant to hurt.  

In addition to the discrimination they face from their fellow students, minority students also have to deal with faculty and staff who are not always completely welcoming. Particularly during their freshman year, minority students can experience high levels of anxiety and loneliness, being away from their parents for the first time in their lives and surrounded by adults who look nothing like them and who often do not seem all that sympathetic or receptive to them. Faculty and staff who would otherwise never think of themselves as unfeeling or inconsiderate, often don’t try to understand what these kids are going through in this new environment and they are not particularly motivated to go out of their way to help them feel at home. I have no doubt that many of these adults genuinely believe in affirmative action and want to see these young people succeed. But approving of affirmative action and actually supporting it are two different things.

What is frequently proposed as the best remedy to eliminate special preferences in college admissions is to focus on the educational needs of students before they even get to high school. Everyone agrees that if young children were given the same opportunity to prepare from grade school through high school for the demands they will face in college, all students would be on an equal footing and would be judged fairly on all entrance exams and class rankings. It all sounds straightforward enough. But I think that this is where we tend to get stuck.  

In addition to overcoming an oftentimes inferior public school education, one of the biggest challenges for some minority students in college is going from a homogeneous (black or Hispanic) high school to a university where the majority of students are white. This is where I think we could make more of a difference. The subject of segregation doesn’t get mentioned much anymore but it’s obviously still prevalent when it comes to education even if it’s not necessarily prompted by deliberate racial prejudice. Clearly, there will always be people who will move to a different state/town/school district to avoid letting their child attend a school not of their own choice. Still, I know many well-meaning liberal parents who want the best for their children and who send them to private schools that are not at all diverse. Their kids are also often involved in sports teams and other recreational activities in which, again, they are not exposed to children of different backgrounds or ethnicities. Indeed, I know plenty of adults who have proven progressive track records and unambiguous social justice perspectives who do not appear to have any friends outside of their own racial or ethnic group. If we look around in our own lives, I am sure there are hundreds of things we could do to advance equal opportunity and, by doing so, improve our own existence in the process.

Having a black president has opened opportunities for discourse about race to take place. Obama has spoken poignantly about race and discrimination several times. One of his most recent speeches was his keynote at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) event earlier this month. Most of the media coverage of the speech focused on the remarks he made regarding parents and their own personal responsibility for making sure that their children do what they need to do to succeed.  In my opinion, too much has been made about that part of his speech. Personally, the part of Obama’s speech that I found most troubling was the part in which he says that whenever he sees young men out on the corner not making anything out of their lives, he thinks to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." People often use that phrase to denote that they owe their good fortune to God’s love or "good graces". But it has always bothered me because it implies that those who are less fortunate, for whatever reason, have not received God’s love. When young men do not get any nurturing and encouragement in school and end up dropping out and eventually wind up in a life of crime and desperation, I don’t think it’s because God does not love them. I think those kids are there because we don’t love them.

And I think that this is where our affirming, rectifying, and productive actions need to begin.

Originally posted to My Inner Sanctum on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 10:08 AM PDT.

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