A friend of mine at Harvard University recently wrote a blog for The Harvard Crimson titled “Affirmative Dissatisfaction: Affirmative action does more harm than good.” In the article she argues that the way in which affirmative action is currently applied “imbeds racism in the lives of future generations” and that it gives people permission to view high achieving black Americans with a grain of salt. Below is my good-spirited rebuttal to my friend’s argument. This is the third blog in a three blog series focusing on my arguments that affirmative action is vital to a strong economy (blog one), extremely complex (blog two), and morally justified (which will be the topic of this third blog).
Having looked at the economic argument of this complex policy, the moral argument must now be addressed. Too many of us are blind to the level of disenfranchisement that exists in many American communities. We take for granted the aspects of our lives that connect us to American society, such as identification cards, bank accounts, and credit cards and we don’t realize that entire sections of American society function without any of these, without any formal connection to this country. They live completely off the grid and yet we pass them everyday on the street. A recent article titled “Confessions of an Ex-Republican” describes how the author’s political conversion originated from this realization. While working with poor communities in New Orleans he witnessed teachers having to train adults how to order off a menu because they had never before been to a sit-down restaurant. “I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity,” the author writes, “It turns out that it’s more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series. Sure, some people do it, but they’re the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.” I hate when I hear people argue against social insurance systems and government interventions by using examples of individuals who have overcome all odds to achieve the American dream. The truth is that doesn’t mean anything. It’s wonderful that some people are able to accomplish great things, and it is equally ridiculous to believe that should set the standard for the average American.
Life isn’t fair and some people get a much shorter stick than others. We all just do the best we can, work hard, try to position ourselves well and then we have to let the cards fall where they may. Would my friend’s life have turned out perfectly well without attending Harvard? Most likely yes. Her economic status and superior education – not to mention the unwavering love and support from her wonderful parents of whom I know and adore – would have provided her with fabulous opportunities in life even if she did not attend Harvard. But for many minority Americans, who tend to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans, attendance at Harvard, or any college for that matter, is their one shot at changing their lives and forever bettering the lives of their families, and due to social and financial challenges that shot might be a shot in the dark. This is where college attendance has the ability to shake an injustice at its core and has the potential to transform the life trajectories of generations of American lives. And you simply can’t say that about her attendance at Harvard. And that, to me, is a difference that matters. Fair or not, there is a greater good to choose from here.
I chose the images for each blog for a specific reason. These pictures from the Harvard Library are of the Harvard Law Review Board of Editors from the years 1916 and 1959 and they paint a picture of what type of people made up the student bodies of America’s prestigious universities, people likely to be the movers and shakers, the most wealthy and powerful, of their generation. As we can see, even up until 1959 the Review was comprised of all white men. The picture of the Review from 1960 is the first time any diversity is seen, as one white woman stands on the edge of a giant sea of 56 white men. This is about how the pictures look for the next 15 years. 1976 was the first year that I could find a black man in the crowd and 7 years later in 1983 was the first time I was able to find a black woman in the picture. I also spotted an Asian woman for the first time that year. Seven years later, in 1990, Barack Obama became the first black American elected to head the Harvard Law Review and the picture, as we can see above, starts to represent the diversity that we take for granted today.
If not for the freedoms authorized by the government to university admissions departments under the affirmative action policy, this rapid transformation in only 30 years would have taken decades longer if it would have happened at all. However it was the American people, not their government, that recognized an opportunity afforded to them by this policy and decided to apply it to change their country. The government did not force universities to meet racial quotas, all the government did was make it legal for universities to take race and gender into consideration if they felt that a diverse student body would more fully develop the intellectual and social intelligence of their students. It was the American people who put the pressure on universities to use this policy to change the look of student bodies across the nation. Affirmative action gave universities the freedom to make more educated decisions on whom to accept and whom to reject and society provided the needed pressure to get universities to actually do it, to consider the entire person – privilege, struggle, talents, finances, grades, mediocracy – rather than just a person’s trust fund and family legacy.
The underlying racial history beneath affirmative action and movements in the 1960s surrounding the policy are no joke. This is a policy that, while held in disdain by some, has been a life altering opportunity for many that has reverberated through generations of Americans, lifting them out of endless cycles of poverty, disappointment, suppression and violence. It is a policy that breaks apart a monopoly of power and wealth and inserts novelty and variety into our industries, and breaths innovation and strength into our economy. And it is a policy so complicated that it is certainly being done an injustice by the limited perspectives of two bickering, privileged, white girls who attend Harvard and Georgetown. My friend and I hope that these two different perspectives on the issue can inspire some thoughtful, respectful and productive debate. We leave it up to you.