Misunderstanding Affirmative Action

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Wow.  So, thanks to OneNewsNow, I learned about an interesting little event the students at Purdue University had last week: an Affirmative Action bake sale, organized by students of the Conservative Coalition for American Values.  (Bake sale raises awareness at Purdue – OneNewsNow)  Here’s a totally biased video about the event:

So, each person was charged differently for baked goods depending on their race.  And what did this accomplish?

OneNewsNow interviewed Coalition spokesperson Naomi Whittaker. “Asian-Pacific Islanders are charged the most because, although they are a minority they are punished in a sense for being successful minorities,” she explains. “So…they will pay the most at $1.50 per baked good.”

Whittaker says Caucasians will be charged $1 and African-Americans 50 cents, with Native Americans getting baked goods for free. But she adds that if the students and faculty want to be judged based on character instead of skin color, then they will all be charged the same fee for baked goods.

This reflects the quotas used in the public school system,” she notes.

The whole intent of the event was truly to propagate the myth that I put in bold above.

Affirmative Action is not about quotas.  Affirmative Action is about resisting racism and other forms of discrimination.  It does not unfairly support those who are not qualified; it favors those who have proven themselves the same as everybody else but who might unfairly be discriminated against because of the prejudice that still persists in society.

The video claims that:

In order to achieve true equality, Affirmative Action must end.

What such a claim fails to convey is that the specific reason we have (and continue to need) Affirmative Action is specifically to compensate for the fact that we do not have true equality without it.  It is an initiative that attempts to provide equity.

Affirmative Action is designed as an attempt to resist privilege.  And you know what?  It works.  It’s not perfect.  It’s not ideal.  But, it does level the playing field.  Did anyone else notice all of the members of the CCAV were white?

Some conversations are now being had on the Purdue campus about this issue.  Here’s a letter in The Exponent from freshman Marinett Cabero (02/25/09), demonstrating some of the mythology that persists on the campus (I’ve highlighted some concerns I see in the author’s point of view):

Why should a measure that was supposed to be temporary, only to be used during the Civil Rights Movement, still be in existence more than 40 years later? Simple, it should not. Affirmative action’s original goal was to level the playing field, making a job open to all applicants regardless of race. Rather than just achieve this goal, by the late 1970s it was clear that it had outlived its usefulness and morphed into something much worse: discriminating based on race, the very concept affirmative action attempted to eradicate. Many people have mistaken notions about affirmative action, thinking it helps minorities get ahead. The opposite is actually true. In reality, people who may not be academically prepared to go on to college or post-bachelor degree work will be thrust into situations where they struggle and ultimately fail. A more qualified candidate may be passed over another less qualified candidate based on skin color (which is the exactly what affirmative action sought to end). Take the example of the University of Michigan, where up to 20 points were awarded towards admission based on what race a person was. Finally, above all else, affirmative action moves us further away from Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a colorblind society, as race drives affirmative action. Therefore, affirmative action should be abolished.

I really hope that Dr. King did not envision a colorblind society.  That would really diminish my admiration for what he stood for.  I’d like to think that he envisioned a society where every race, ethnicity, and cultural background was appreciated for its uniqueness and never treated as superior or inferior.  I think a “colorblind society” is a myth that maintains white privilege (as Stephen Colbert reminds us through satire).

Here is a response from Purdue sophomore Charleston Crouch (03/02/2009):

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of a colorblind society with the intent that society would actually be colorblind itself. If you are not aware, and you possibly may not be, racial discrimination is still very much alive in many settings. There are things that are done not knowingly that come from one’s background and past experiences. The reasoning for affirmative action is just how you have stated it, which is to level the playing field. The reason it must continue is because there are inner-city school or public school children, who a lot of times are minority children, who have the potential or natural intellect to be great in any career. The children are not provided with access to the teachers or technology that another student may be; therefore they are accommodated for that. A student can only learn what is presented to them by their educators. So imagine that you lived in a low-class area and your school cannot afford many computers for you to learn as much as you have to get where you are, but you have the intelligence to use it and be great and haven’t been given that shot to show it. Most of your family members have not been to college before because of the past racial discriminations or economic problems, but you desire more. Today, the only way to get there is by going to college; without it any man or woman is at a loss. So why not admit some minorities to boost your college’s national appeal or even graduate some minority leaders? Which does not even really level the field entirely, but just gives a few people of different races a shot at success that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

I commend both these students for speaking out on their point of view, but particularly Charleston for calling out privilege.

Affirmative Action raises a lot of concerns, but only because people don’t understand it.  I hope we can all continue to have conversations about privilege so that we can continue to deconstruct the inequality that persists in our society.

How do we go about that?  What is the best way, particularly as higher education professionals, to respond to events like this?  How do we address political points of view like the one presented by CCAV appropriately to protect our students and deconstruct privilege?  Post your comments!  Let’s get some discussion going!

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There are 14 Comments to "Misunderstanding Affirmative Action"

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  • Mr. Roach says:

    Affirmative action is about giving a huge leg-up to blacks and other minorities so that there are, in effect, two standards in this country. If you’ve ever looked at SAT, LSAT, GMAT and any other test where the data is available, the racial differences and leg-up for minorities is huge, basically one standard deviation. It may not be quotas, but it’s not fair either.

  • ZackFord says:

    I totally understand how that’s how it looks at face value, but you have to appreciate the deeper intent.

    If there were NO affirmative action, it would not be fair. Economically, educationally, and socially, whites still have greater access and opportunity than people of color. And it’s not because there’s a white male majority, but because there has been a history of racial and gender injustice in this nation. That history is not merely history; it represents the present as well.

    We don’t all come from an even playing field. The American Dream that we all have equal opportunity is a myth that actually helps maintain the inequity. Affirmative action might not look fair (and arguably, it’s barely a band-aid solution to an epic problem), it actually is MORE fair than if it wasn’t there.

  • Mr. Roach says:

    First, why is equality so important. Second, why assume there would be racial parity of results even in a perfect world. Third, the uneven playing field analogy is a little time-worn; Asians are smart but poor but soon become successful. The reason is they have high IQs, and blacks have a lower average IQ.

    If you believe excellence is more important than equality, as I do, then you will allow the chips to fall where they may. It’s too invasive and pointless and destructive to lower standards across the board as we do to ensure diversity.

  • ZackFord says:

    Wow, sir.

    Equality is important because it’s the theoretical foundation of a free society.

    Racial parity is easily imaginable when you realize that the mere concept of race is completely socially constructed. There is no actual such thing as “race,” it just depends upon how a person looks.

    Differences in IQ are a horrible way to make decisions. “IQ” doesn’t actually mean anything except what a certain test tests. The generalizations you’ve made, if true, are actually representative of the disparity that persists. Race is not a determinant of IQ.

    Our “excellence” is more “excellent” if it reflects the spectrum of perspectives. Excellence without equality is not worth having. By not working to ensure diversity, we would actually be enabling a majoritarian aristocracy. That does not benefit the progress of our species or our society. It is contrary to the very principles that our nation was founded upon.

  • Mr. Roach says:

    Socially constructed? I suppose that our skin, skeletal, and other genetic differences are all socially constructed too.

    IQ measures IQ and it’s correlated with other useful things like problem-solving, job performance, time horizons, etc. You should read Arthur Jensen’s the G Factor some time.

    Our nation was founded on freedom more than equality. Read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers to learn more.

    Equality’s overrated and it’s inversely proportional to liberty. This is particularly so when one wants equality of outcome as opposed to rules. Count me out. I’ll take my chance son freedom.

  • ZackFord says:

    That must be wickedly easy to say as a white man (a fair assumption to make, I think).

    For you, and the white privilege and male privilege you hold, your concept of freedom IS equality. You see “freedom” as an even playing field, but society is more complex than that, sir. We do not all start on an even playing field, and we don’t all play on one.

    Freedom that doesn’t strive for equality isn’t freedom at all. I’m sorry you can’t see that.

  • Mr. Roach says:

    What boring, conventional views you have. It’s what I call College Orientation Week Liberalism.

    You have no idea how few privileges I’ve had in life. I certainly had a lot fewer than the prep-school educated Barack Obama. I’m where I am because I’m blessed with brains and I’ve worked hard.

    Further, if I’m so privileged, why should I reject those privileges. Your Marxist worldview doesn’t explain why I and my peple should commit suicide. I in fact don’t want privileges; but I don’t want to be handicapped either in the futile goal of getting people who are not my equal to have equal outcomes. It would not be appropriate within my racial cohort, nor across racial lines. Societies that reward ambition, initiative, brains, and hard work find benefits for everyone. Compare, for example, a country like the US that basically does this to the Soviet Union or black-ruled Zimbabwe or corruption-ridden Mexico.

    Affirmative action is simply a selfish desire by minorities and certain white lackeys to create the essence of social injustice: helping one group completely at the expense of another. It wasn’t right during slavery and Jim Crow, and it’s not right in reverse. But when removing external impediments to black achievmeent like Jim Crow did not result in immediate black success, the goal posts have been moved and they’ll keep being moved, because there is a genetic fact that everyone is fighting against: the races have different cognitive endowments and every test of IQ whether formal (like SAT or Raven’s Matrices) or informal (like income or problem-solving ability) shows this. You are fighting reality and you are using yesterday’s genetic and anthropological ideas to do so.

    I hope you’re not this didactic and close-minded with your students.

  • ZackFord says:

    I’m sorry if thinking about the potential of every individual to thrive in spite of historical precedent is “boring and conventional,” but I certainly am not at all impressed with your point of view.

    You see, Mr. Roach, it is your facts that are antiquated, not mine. There are no genetic differences between the races. Your claims of “different cognitive endowments” is about 100 years old. Differences in test scores are not explained by biological science, but with sociological science. Test scores reflect access to educational resources and opportunities, demonstrative not of the difference in potential between races, but between socioeconomic statuses. The parallel between race and class is not the consequence of genetic potential; it is the consequence of historical and persistent racial inequality in America. It is that wicked, self-inhibiting cycle that Affirmative Action attempts to counteract.

    That being said, you have to understand how Affirmative Action works. Your comments suggest that you do not. AA only kicks in AFTER a candidate has been deemed qualified. A university, for example, has a minimum set of qualifications for admission. Affirmative Action does not allow a student to be admitted who does not meet the requirements. Thus, it does not run counter to your ideal of rewarding ambition. To reiterate, Affirmative Action ensures that everyone who IS qualified has a fair chance, and that is all that it does.

    What I essentially hear you saying, sir, is “If there are differences between the races, that is the way it is supposed to be.” Such a view ignores a history of discrimination and the prejudice that still very much exists today. Whether you realize it or not, viewpoints like yours actually contribute to that prejudice. There should not be differences between the races. The mere fact that you, as a white man, do not “benefit” from working towards that goal is only proof of your own privilege.

  • Mr. Roach says:

    You should check out the website gene expression. It’s basically a colloquium of genetecists and other smart science guys, and you’ll find that your Franz Boas “man is a blank slate” nonsense is 50 year old myth with little basis in fact that is increasingly discredited by studies in population genetics. Do you think differences in skin color among the races are “socially constructed” too? Hahaha.

    As for universities, why is it then that University of Michigan prior to the big lawsuit separated candidats by race and scores that were “presumptively denied” for whites would place a black candidate in the “presumptively admitted” pile? But I guess they’re both “high school graduates with a pulse” so they’re “qualified,” which means nothing when there are one and more standard deviations in difference in their test scores, grades, and everything else.

    You are just repackaging liberal conventional wisdom, and I doubt you’ve done many studies on IQ, race, or genetics, other than learning the talking points about social construction. If everything’s socially constructed, though, why isn’t this also true of the regime created by left-liberal professors after the sixties. I mean, how can you escape the death grip of social determinism but no one else can?

  • ZackFord says:

    Sir, I resent the implication that because you disagree with me, I am uneducated on the issues. My graduate studies included quite a bit of depth in understanding both intelligence and racial identity. I have a number of articles I could recommend to better help you understand where my arguments on these topics come from. Please let me know if you’d like me to share.

    The force of social systems is strong, and simply because we’ve been able to identify the effect of these systems does not mean that they can so easily be deconstructed. Education is the key, which is why I write this blog and respond so patiently to your comments. It is only by challenging the norms of our society that we can truly unravel the knots of privilege in which centuries of precedent have tied us up.

  • Mr. Roach says:

    Have you read Gene Expression, IQ & and the Wealth of Nations, or Arthur Jensen’s G Factor. Or, for that matter, the Bell Curve?

  • ZackFord says:

    No, but I’ve studied the cognitive development theories of Perry, King & Kitchener, Gardner, and Sternberg, all of whom demonstrate that cognitive development is much more complex than a simple quotient. Sternberg, in particular, does much to challenge the simplistic generalizations of “IQ” and “g”.

    I’ve also studied social justice and privilege through the work of writers like Allan Johnson, Iris Young, and Peggy McIntosh, in addition to a variety of research about racial identity development.

    Books published 10+ years ago are not as current as you might like to think. Issues of race and intelligence are much more complex, and the research that continues to come out demonstrates that the simplistic generalizations of the past are not adequate.

    Race does not determine intellectual potential. Any evidence that might suggest it does is actually demonstrative of historical and present-day social issues that have not been resolved, and I simply will not be swayed that they shouldn’t be resolved. I find any attempts by anyone (particularly white men) to impede progress towards racial equality to be horribly misguided, and I grow weary of this conversation, because you continue to disappoint me, Mr. Roach.

  • Народ в таких вот случаях так говорит – Ах ты, Вавила! Не берись за вилы, не умывши рыла. 🙂

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