Monday, October 15, 2012

0 Justice, not Diversity, when Considering Affirmative Action

The rub, for me, in conversations about Affirmative Action, is that we often talk about Affirmative Action in terms of the value of diversity as opposed to fairness.

Diversity for diversity's sake is foolishness. It's like asking for a people safari or a face bouquet between classes.  People of color aren't decorations to be available for the perusing of their peers because it makes the peers feel better.  People of color have experiences and identities and it is unfair, if not offensive, to speak about their presence in institutions of higher learning like they are around for decorative flair.

When President Johnson spoke about affirmative action at Howard University (I posted the speech just before this post) he did not make reference to the aesthetic value or the need for "cultural exchange/interaction" between blacks and whites.  He framed the argument for affirmative action as a compensation, a righting-of-errors, a decision by the United States to recognize that although it had freed the black individual, the United States had done little to promote his progress.  It was an admission that the plight of blacks in the US was unique in that the racial group was heavily burdened by the fetters of slavery.

Over time, however, our discussions about racism have taken a different hue as racism has become less blatant and its effects more subtle and subversive.  The white American, in most circumstances, is taught that racism is an abomination and a "mistake of the times" before Dr. King said that he had a dream and everyone magically understood that blacks and whites were equal.  The history and struggle of Civil Rights is condensed into a package that does not implicate American society as conspirators or collaborators within a racist system.  Instead, Civil Rights is presented as an ailment of the South and something that anyone who never owned a slave and never sprayed protestors with fire hoses should not feel responsible for.  As a society, we have been reluctant to talk about the systemic and institutional advantages that all dominant groups have enjoyed at the cost of those who are marginalized and, in doing so, have redefined the context in which progressive policy is defended.  Instead of Affirmative Action being about justice, Affirmative Action is about diversity -- a noble, but not at all equal, endeavor.

Therefore, the argument that is waiting to be made is that Affirmative Action continues to exist because the damage done by centuries of slavery and disenfranchisement to blacks (that continues today) cannot and has not been erased in the half-century since Affirmative Action's implementation.  And this is especially salient considering that fact that the President of the United States is a black man.  Considerations of the United States being in a "post-racial" era abound because Barack Obama ascended to the White House.  His rise is certainly valuable and symbolic of the great strides the United States and black Americans have made.  But to say that one man reaching such a station in life is indicative of the collapse of racism in the United States (at an institutional or personal level) is foolhardy.

We have to look at equality of opportunity and resources as the end goal, not simply diversity.  Brown v. Board of Education is treated as a landmark case because it integrated schools but integration was not the end goal for Civil Rights activists.  The black child is no more likely to succeed simply by sitting in class next to a white student.  In fact, after years of being told by society that he is less capable than his white peer the black student is likely to perform worse (see: stereotype threat).  And the stereotype threat does not even address micro-aggressions, overt racism, pressure to speak on behalf of one's race, association with the worst aspects of one's race, resentment from one's own racial group, anxiety induced by attempting to be non-threatening to whites, and so on, which affect a person's ability to learn.

Brown v. Board was about access to resources for students of color.  A practical step toward accessing the resources that white students were given over black students was through integration.  Integration, in and of itself, was not the goal.  Being a person of color at an institute of higher education is not sunshine and rainbows after matriculation.  Being expected to speak on the behalf of your racial group is fatiguing; your heritage is treated as exotic or foreign; you are constantly defined by your racial identity, your peers second-guess your actual intelligence because you "were admitted through Affirmative Action and not test scores" (I wasn't, for the record -- upper-half of my class' ACT range); and you are an activist, a student, a spokesperson, and an ambassador.  This is not to diminish the difficulties that my classmates face in college or to say that they do not feel other pressures.

But the line of thinking that treats "diversity" as the ultimate prize for blacks just doesn't make sense.  I love my friends of every color -- even the Conservatives -- but they and I recognize that our experiences are different.  I am no more likely to succeed simply by learning in the same room as them. I am more likely to succeed because we are now drawing from the same resource pool by way of integrated classrooms -- though, granted, other systemic advantages greatly favor them (networking, criminalization rates, family income, etc.).

So the Supreme Court's time could and should be better spent hearing a different case, I feel.  Abigail Fisher is one of many white students who simply missed the mark and chose to target students of color as opposed to herself, the athletes, the legacy students, the children whose parents gave large sums of money, and/or the university's general admissions practices.

If anything good comes from this very public referendum on Affirmative Action, I hope it is that the argument is re-contextualized as a policy meant to ensure fairness and justice for those whose labor was not rewarded, wealth was not protected, and whose plight fed the success of others.  President Johnson was very candid when he spoke at Howard in 1965.  He talked about the disintegration of the family structure of blacks and how white Americans were complicit in that.  He talked about white hatred, prejudice, and condescension.  He confronted the reality that black Americans deserved more than just "freedom" because the years of bondage and oppression robbed them of the basic ingredients necessary for progress.  Courageously, he said:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. 
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
Affirmative Action isn't about making admissions pamphlets more colorful or aspiring to a "diverse" society because we have been taught that diversity is a value we should celebrate.  Affirmative Action was born of a stronger American tradition: justice.  It is the repaying of a societal debt and a recognition of guilt that affirms the strength of the American spirit and American values in its willingness to accept culpability.

The inspiration for this post came from this New York Times piece.


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