A Conversation on Affirmative Action – Part 3

Note: This is the third blog in a three-blog series. To read Part 1, click here. T read Part 2, click here.
 

Harvard Law Review Board of Editors, Volume 103, 1989-1990. Image from the Harvard Law School Library.

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.

Camille Koué

Camille Koué is a former student for the Master’s Degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focusing on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, California, she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gavin.armstrong.589 Gavin Armstrong

    Hi Camille, in the third part of your blog series above you raise some interesting points in the
    argument that Affirmative Action is morally justified.

    Affirmative Action (AA) policies can be defined as policies which support people who belong to a specified group or groups and these policies are usually put in place to help deal with some injustice which has been suffered by a particular group or groups of people in the past (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2009).

    In the United States of America (America) in the 1960’s a few selective schools implemented AA policies and began giving preferential treatment to applicants who belonged to certain
    minority groups using the justification that they had suffered from injustice in the past and that the past transgressions merited an advantage towards the minority group in the current times to address the wrongs of the past.

    In the landmark case of University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 [1978] Allan Bakke, a white man claimed he was not admitted to The Medical School of the University of California at Davis so a person less qualified who was coloured could be allowed admittance, the U.S. supreme court held that race may be taken into count for admissions into schools, but only as a single factor among many.

    Recently AA has been ended at public universities in Florida, Washington, California and
    Michigan. California being the first state in 1996 with the state’s voters passing Proposition 209, which bars preferential treatment in education, contracting or public employment based on sex or race.

    You state that ‘many minority Americans, tend to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans’ while I agree that this statement is most likely correct, I think that it raises an interesting point. The point raised is that many, but not all minority Americans tend to be poorer than white Americans.

    The question I ask is if there is an AA policy in place to support a minority group because they tend to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans, do the members of the minority group with above average incomes receive the same benefits as the members of
    the group that have lower than average incomes?

    Also what about the other Americans who are not part of the minority group(s) in the AA policy and who are at the bottom end of the income scale? Should they be excluded just because they belong to a group that on average has better incomes and education? Surely this would disadvantage Americans who do not belong to the group(s) in the AA policy
    who have lower than average incomes even more?

    I believe the argument that a minority group should be part of an AA policy just because the group tends to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans is not a valid reason for AA as you would be implementing the AA policy to help people who are poorer than the
    average white American when in fact not all of the members of the group would belong to this assumption. Also what about other Americans who are not part of the minority group(s) that are also disproportionately poorer than white Americans, would these people then not also be disadvantaged even further as they are not part of the AA policy?

    You say that ‘Fair or not, there is a greater good to choose from here.’ I admit that life is not fair and that you have to make the most from what you are given. However I believe that for America to uphold its continued success in the world that it needs meritocracy where everyone, regardless of race and income should have the same chance to go to the best
    university’s and their place is not taken by another applicant who does not have the same ability and skill levels but is accepted in preference, because of an AA policy.

    I agree that the underlying racial history beneath affirmative action and movements in the 1960s surrounding the AA policies are no joke. However as you mention AA is a very complicated policy and while it may have had its place in the past to address some of the wrongs done, the best path for the future is to provide the best education possible to
    students with the best abilities, talent and skills no matter what their background is.

    You state that ‘It (AA) 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.’ I would argue that if applicants of lesser skills are accepted over better
    qualified applicants based on criteria set by AA policies then how will that breathe
    innovation and strength into Americas economy?

    Surely the best applicant for the position should be judged on their own abilities, talent and
    skills, not on some AA policy designed to help correct wrongs from the past.

    References
    The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2009). 71203 Business ethics. Lower Hutt, NZ: Scholes.
    University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 [1978] Retrieved from http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=438&invol=265