AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BENEFITS ALL OF SOCIETY

 

 

By Mitchell W. Pearlman*

Gregory Daniels**

 

 

            Affirmative action is not faring well.  Numerous polls and referenda, such as Proposition 209 in California several years ago, demonstrate the popular rejection of affirmative action as a method of dealing with social problems.  Affirmative action is also not doing well in the courts.  Nor is it likely to do better in the foreseeable future.

So why should the supporters of affirmative action urge its continuation in the face of such apparently overwhelming barriers?  Wouldnít it be more productive to press for new civil rights initiatives rather than waste effort and good will on a loser?

That was essentially the issue debated at the New York Public Library recently in a program sponsored by the Oxford University Press and the University of Pennsylvaniaís Annenberg School for Journalism.

Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, and others on the panel, suggested that more would be accomplished in the civil rights arena by remedying the poor quality of K-12 education in our public schools, particularly in poorer communities.  They argued that affirmative action has failed to meet its goals; is increasingly being held unconstitutional by todayís judges; and, perhaps most important, the majority of Americans consider it unfair and discriminatory.

The opposing point of view was presented by Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley, Jr., with strong support from Ruth Simmons, President of Smith College.  They didnít contest the prediction that affirmative action will likely continue under attack in

____________________

*Mitchell W. Pearlman, the executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, is a lawyer who writes and lectures extensively on government transparency, information technology and privacy.  Mr. Pearlman is in his mid-50s and is white.

 

**Gregory Daniels, a management analyst for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, is a graduate of A Better Chance, which places talented minority students in top private and public high schools in preparation for college.  Mr. Daniels is in his mid-20s and is African-American.

the immediate future by both judges and the general public.  Nor did they dispute the suggestion that greater resources ought to be placed in other areas, including the improvement of K-12 education (although they were skeptical that thereís a political will to commit sufficient resources to such problems).  And they certainly didnít claim affirmative action was the cure-all for racial discrimination.

Instead, they argued that remedying racial discrimination in a fair and meaningful way is difficult and complex.  Affirmative action, they believe, when properly applied, has proved to be an effective tool in the fight to create a better, more equitable society.  They advocated neither quotas nor preferences.  Rather, they argued that diversity in any group (particularly in a pluralistic country such as ours) -- whether it be in a college class or on a corporate board -- benefits the group and society as a whole.  And thatís the principal virtue of affirmative action.

Here are two examples to illustrate their point.

Would a law school class discussion of reproductive rights be as comprehensive and insightful if the class were comprised entirely of white males than if it were of mixed race and gender?  Would the white male students themselves learn more about the subject in a multi-cultural, coeducational environment?  The judges who rule on controversies involving reproductive rights come from our law schools, public and private, and the quality of the discussions in those schoolsí classrooms undoubtedly help formulate their opinions.  Such opinions may eventually become the law of the land.

Likewise, is our countryís political leadership more apt to develop better policies concerning military intervention in cases of genocide in places such as Eastern Europe and Africa, if its senior advisors do not include African-Americans?  Itís no secret that many of our nationís top advisors come from elite schools.  If qualified minorities arenít admitted to those institutions in sufficient numbers, because of such factors as lower SAT scores or because they come from poorly performing high schools, thereís a significantly greater likelihood they wonít be at the table to help formulate important policies in which their backgrounds and perspectives may be invaluable.

After listening to the debate, we started discussing the arguments pro and con in terms of our own personal experiences.  The country has gone through much change since the 1960s.  Yet, as a society, itís perhaps more racially polarized than it was thirty or even forty years ago.

Although we represent different generations and have different backgrounds, we both believe strongly in the ideals of equal rights and racial equality.  And although we have doubts as to whether these ideals can be achieved during our lifetimes, our separate experiences have led us to believe affirmative action is important and worthwhile.

We also believe affirmative action hasnít always been applied appropriately and, consequently, is largely misunderstood.  For example, in South Africa after its first post-apartheid elections, many businesses and other institutions were frantically enrolling and hiring blacks to prove their support for the new black majority regime.  It was a disaster because unprepared and unqualified blacks were being enrolled and hired.  Not only did they perform poorly, but they knew they were performing poorly, thereby lowering their already low self-esteem.

To some extent, this has occurred in the United States.  But, affirmative action isnít intended to find space for the unqualified.  That helps no one, including the supposed beneficiaries.  Itís designed to encourage initiatives and the use of non-traditional means that will identify and place those individuals who have the qualifications to succeed.  Itís not intended to displace any other qualified individual.  It merely recognizes that diversity is generally an asset to a group in fulfilling its function, and therefore ought to be considered in looking at qualifications for entry into that group.

Affirmative action does indeed change the playing field.  It levels it.  Itís perhaps emotionally appealing to believe oneís spouse, child, relative or friend has been discriminated against when he or she didnít obtain a position that would have likely been obtained if it hadnít been for affirmative action.  The reality is, however, that if it hadnít been for an historically pervasive and deep-rooted discrimination, whites and males would have been competing all along on a fair basis with the qualified beneficiaries of affirmative action.

To explore and explain our views on the continued importance of affirmative action as we understand it, we decided to describe some seminal experiences in our lives where affirmative action would have played, or did play, a meaningful role.  Here are some of those experiences.  The first experience described is that of the white co-author.

Although I didnít know the term ďde facto at the time, I grew up in a de facto racially segregated neighborhood, in a de facto racially northern city.  I encountered blacks of my own age for the first time in high school.  The high school population was close to 50% white and 50% black.  But integration ended at the schoolís doors.  Inside, there was virtually complete de facto racial segregation based on academic program.  Most of the whites were in the college preparatory program, while virtually all the blacks were in a general studies or vocational program.

For the most part, the whites stayed with the whites and the blacks stayed with the blacks at lunch, dances and other student functions.  Even athletics was mostly segregated by race, with the whites concentrating on baseball, swimming, tennis and golf, and the blacks on basketball, football and track.  But there were exceptions.  There were a few minority teachers as well as minority students in the college prep program, and there was some mixing of the races on sports teams.

It was in sports that I first came to know a number of black students whose backgrounds and outlooks were so vastly different from my own.  Competition and team play builds respect for the individual, and once respect is earned, people are more willing to open themselves up and share their thoughts and viewpoints.  In this context, I became aware of the insidious damage that racial separation and discrimination causes.

I was surprised by the fact that the black kids I came to know were, by and large, as innately bright, creative and talented as the white students in my college prep courses.  Why was I surprised?  Clearly because of the stereotyping I was exposed to as a white growing up in a segregated environment.

So while my experiences with black schoolmates initially opened my eyes to the fact that whites and blacks had many more human characteristics in common than not, and one culture was no more superior than the other, I also became aware there were some very real and very powerful forces at work that made us different and unequal.  One was that many of my black friends felt, to one degree or another, inferior to whites.  In part, they too were the victims of white societyís stereotyping.  But more, they felt that in all likelihood, they would be working for whites or would otherwise be reliant on their good will or largesse.  They saw this as their fate.  It was largely the fate of their parents, and they thought it would probably be the fate of their children as well.

The Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case had been decided by that time, but schools were still generally segregated in both the North and the South.  The civil rights movement hadnít yet taken hold, and affirmative action and other equal opportunity laws and programs werenít as yet even dreams to the many, let alone an intellectual concept to be debated.  The result was the creation of an enormous psychological barrier for black kids of my generation.

In discussions, I sometimes noticed an aura of hopelessness in many of my black friends.  It manifested itself in a lack of ambition and optimism that most of my white classmates had.  Sometimes this was expressed in economic terms -- i.e., my blacks friends expected to be employed only in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs with extremely limited earnings potential.  But perhaps worse, much of their pessimism was based on a sense of racial injustice from which they felt there was no escape.  So what use was there in trying to better yourself?  There would be no bright future.  These sentiments struck a chord within me that still resonates today.

I went on to a college and a law school that were overwhelmingly white, as were nearly all the colleges and universities of the day, except for some historically black colleges, mostly in the South.  In both college and law school, I witnessed the same racial stereotyping that I grew up with and that many of my white contemporaries continued to perpetrate because they knew no better and had little opportunity to learn the truth.  Few of my white friends back then believed me when I described my experiences with blacks from high school.

By the end of the 1960s, however, the civil rights movement was in full swing and the consciousness of many whites to the inequities and problems suffered by racial minorities was beginning to be raised.  Yet there were still too few blacks and other minorities in our colleges and universities, both as students and teachers.  Consequently, there were relatively few opportunities for whites and minorities to learn from one another, and for that experience to translate and carry forward into our society as a whole.

Nor were there ample opportunities for open discussions outside of school by people of diverse races, cultures and backgrounds.  And, except for the armed forces (which were becoming increasingly black as a result of the Vietnam war), there was little opportunity for members of different races to get to know each other as individuals, to appreciate their similarities and differences, or to become friends.

If there had only been affirmative action back then, how much narrower the racial divide would be now!  How much more advanced our society would be toward the ideals of equal rights and racial equality!  How much brighter all our lives would be!

Eventually affirmative action, however, did enter our national life.  Hereís the affirmative action experience of the African-American co-author, and what it meant to him, and probably many others like him.

I can only imagine what my life wouldíve been like had my eighth grade teacher, Laverne Copes, not taken me aside and asked if I wanted to go to college.  At the age of thirteen, the son of Central American immigrants and growing up in Harlem, I hadnít given much thought to going to college.  All I knew was college was a kind of school some people went to after high school.  Nevertheless, I told Ms. Copes, ďYeah.  I guess so.Ē

Like many young minority people, I was uncertain of my potential for higher education.  I was, however, sure there would be significant obstacles.  Thus, my response to Ms. Copes was somewhat disingenuous because I thought it unlikely that anything would change.  Was I wrong!  I never figured on Ms. Copesí perseverance in helping a student, or my motherís steadfast belief in education as the path to a better life.

A few months after that brief exchange with Ms. Copes, I was on a bus to a small town in central Connecticut to attend an academically rigorous high school.  Talk about culture shock!

Life in Harlem for an adolescent was noisy, glaring and full of danger.  It was also exciting and energizing.  School days meant socializing in class, and at times, seeking bigger thrills by skipping school for unchaperoned excursions to places such as the Statue of Liberty.  It was filled with late night mischief and involvement with older teens, some of whom were involved in criminal activity.  Many of these older boys were very bright.  Unfortunately, crime was a viable and, therefore, popular avenue for a number of clever, ambitious young people.

I went to Connecticut as part of the A Better Chance (ABC) program.  ABC is a national, non-profit organization that helps place talented minority students in highly-regarded academic programs at cooperating private and public schools.  I lived at an ABC House near campus with seven other minority students.  Although we didnít know each other, we all came from the same kind of inner-city communities.  We had a hard time adjusting not only to small-town Connecticut life -- the quiet, the darkness, the open green spaces -- but also to the fact that our color made us different and stand out from just about everyone else.  (In Harlem, whites were the distinct minority.)  We all felt very self-conscious in our new environment.  This bonded us as brothers for our entire stay in ABC and beyond.

Until recently, I didnít perceive of ABC as an affirmative action program.  But thatís precisely what it is.  Itís about qualification for and admission to institutions of higher learning.  But as a teenager, I didnít fully understand this.

In frustration, I often threatened to leave the program.  Sometimes I threatened to leave because I found the road to academic excellence arduous given my meager preparation in the New York City public school system.  There were many late nights filled with learning basic math skills, such as fractions.  English classes were particularly difficult for me.  My usual way of speaking wasnít the way people spoke in my Connecticut school.  For two years in my Harlem junior high school, we didnít even have an English teacher.

But more typically, I threatened to leave the program because it was just so hard to adjust to being a minority student in a white school, and a black resident in a white community.  One part of me wanted to fit in.  Yet another part of me wanted to publicly honor and show respect for the culture and community from which I came.

Coming to terms with these conflicts within me was the single most difficult hurdle I had to overcome as an ABC student.  And itís still a challenging element in successfully navigating in a white-dominated world.  Through my ABC experience, though, I eventually learned how to deal with these contradictions and remain true to myself.  It requires me to flow between different personas at different times.  Itís a hard thing to balance.  But I learned it can be done.  The learning experience itself, however, was a painful one.

            My first several months in Connecticut were the worst of my life.  To help ease the transition into our new surroundings, the ABC program provided local ďhost familiesĒ for its students.  We would visit with, and spend weekends at, our host familiesí homes.

It was awkward learning how to interact with my white host family.  There were strong cultural differences, differences in dress, in points of view, and most notably, in language.  My host family and I dealt with our differences and established a close relationship that continues to this day.  I believe they learned as much from me as I learned from them.  I consider my host mother and father as a second set of parents, and my host brothers as my brothers.

I was straddling two different worlds.  I had a lingering fear that my attending an ABC-affiliated school in a white suburban community would cut the very thread that linked me to my friends back home.  Like many other ABC students, I experienced a kind of ďbacklashĒ in my old neighborhood.  Some friends distanced themselves and soon became strangers.

            Over time, I began to appreciate not only the educational preparation I received through ABC, but also the opportunity to add a measure of cultural diversity that benefited the school and town in which the ABC program was located.  For example, there was an incident in an English class in which a white student used the word ďsordidĒ to describe people who live in Harlem.  It took some courage for me to suggest in front of the class that ďsordidĒ was not an appropriate word to use in describing a group of people, and that I was, in fact, from Harlem.  The teacher expressed her thanks for my helping to properly explain a vocabulary word.  But I think she was more thankful for my tactfully dealing with what could have been a provocative situation.

As I reflect on the ABC experience and what it has meant to me, and probably many others who had similar opportunities, Iíve come to appreciate how it has raised my horizons and self-image as a human being.  I became more confident.  I knew I had worked hard and my grades reflected that.  My ambitions were heightened.  I became more goal-oriented.  With the strong support system ABC provided, I was able to overcome not only the feelings of inadequacy all adolescents have, but also the feelings of inadequacy minorities often have in a white world.  What once seemed nearly impossible for me to attain, became the expected.

After the ABC program, the transition to college was fairly easy, for I was well-prepared.  In classes large and small, I was confident enough to present points of view different from many of my classmates.  This has carried over to the workplace where I feel I am respected for my competence and contributions to the collective effort.  I now also serve on the board of directors of the ABC program that first gave me ďA Better Chance.Ē

We believe that our experiences are by no means unique.  Racial segregation and isolation, and the ignorance they breed, remain critical issues that must be addressed if weíre to become a more harmonious society.  Affirmative action, properly administered, is one of a number of good tools to address these and related issues of race relations.  For affirmative action doesnít just benefit minorities.  It benefits all of society.