As a Black American, I have disliked affirmative action for years. I mean, how could colleges admit Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans with lower grades and scores, but turn away better qualified Whites and Asians? To me, it seemed like blatant racial discrimination. Why should colleges and universities lower standards for minority applicants? It seemed to me that affirmative action allowed exactly the kind of unequal treatment people have been fighting against in the Civil Rights Movement for 30 years.
I thought affirmative action went against the Constitution, which provides in the 14th Amendment that people shall not be discriminated against based on race, sex, creed or ethnicity. I used to agree with those who think the Constitution is a color-blind document and those who think Americans should consider race an irrelevant issue to ensure equality for all. But is the Constitution really color-blind? Is race really irrelevant in America? I don't think so.
Most of all, I opposed affirmative action because to a certain extent I believed it diminished my accomplishments as a minority. I didn't want to face charges of being unqualified, unworthy and unwelcomed. I'm really conscious of people saying behind my back, "She only got into this school because she's Black."
I have been doing a lot of reading about affirmative action, and it has ultimately changed my opinion. With so much racial inequality in America, policies like affirmative action level the playing field and actually make our society more just. Remember, it wasn't too long ago when people of color were barred from even applying to certain colleges and jobs because they were minorities.
I read a speech by President Lyndon Johnson to a 1965 Howard University audience that really influenced me. He stated, "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 say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." Johnson's assertion had a significant impact on affirmative action policies in the 1970s, and changed the minds of many Americans - including mine - on the subject. Now I look at affirmative action as a type of compensation for past discrimination like slavery or legal segregation.
Just how equally are minorities treated in America today anyway? We live in a world with linguistic profiling - you know, when people turn you down for jobs on the phone because they think you're Black or Latino from the way you talk. Things like racial profiling happen daily when the police pull over Black men in nice cars because they look suspicious. Notice that the mostly White suburban schools have better resources than the Black and Latino inner-city schools that lack teachers and safe facilities.
Racism today is not as obvious as it was in the past. There aren't people of color drinking from different water fountains, but when I open my eyes and honestly look at the world around me, I see that racial inequality still exists.
A common misconception about affirmative action is that it lowers standards for Black, Latino and Native American students in the college application process. The plaintiffs in a case against the University of Mich-igan claim that affirmative action lowered standards for minority applicants. However, the data sheet on the University of Michigan's undergraduate program website cites that Caucasian students who were admitted to the University of Michigan had an average GPA lower than that of Black students. Also, over the past ten years, the acceptance rate for Caucasians at the UM Law School was still higher than the acceptance rate for Black or Latino students, and was second only to the rate of acceptance for Native American students (who still only make up two percent of the student population). It's important to step back from the argument to recognize that even with affirmative action policies in place, the University of Michigan is still more than 70 percent White.
Unfortunately, in 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that mandated race could not be a factor in hiring or admission to any state institution. After the University of California system enacted the ban against affirmative action, schools like UC Berkeley found that the admittance rates of under-represented minority students dropped by a staggering 14 percent. The freshman class at UCLA this year has only 281 Blacks out of 10,507 students.
When White, Black, Asian, Latino, Arab and other students are brought together in a classroom, they can better understand their differences and thus destroy stereotypes. A professor at UCLA told me affirmative action programs have decreased racial hostilities between different groups because of this learning process.
I can't imagine being in a class discussion about a particular ethnic group or culture without anyone with in-depth knowledge present. How can a group of all-White students have a serious discussion about slavery, bilingual education, immigration, racism or even affirmative action without recognizing that they are missing some key perspectives? Without diversified student bodies, many minority students (including those at the University of Michigan) are forced to be the official speakers for their race.
As a Black student at a mostly White high school, I've helped my classmates understand more about the Black experience, but I do get tired of being the official representative of my race. My classmates always ask, "Candace, what do you think about the comments in the movie 'Barbershop?'" or "Were you offended by Trent Lott's racist comments?" Diversity is not only important to the learning process of each student, it also alleviates the pressure on students like me who often represent their race because they're the only Black, Asian or Latino person in the room.
Minority students might receive a slight preference when they are admitted into a particular institution, but they have to work hard to earn their grades, just like every other student.
I couldn't even count on one hand the number of students at my school who abhor affirmative action, but when it comes to asking Daddy's friend on an Ivy League board of trustees for a favor - you can bet they start believing in preferences. Many students at my school know someone admitted to a top university because of "connections." Schools may give affirmative action to minorities, but regardless of test scores, the rich have always gotten into the nation's most selective schools by relying on insider preferences.
The Wall Street Journal took a look at the practice of legacy preferences, where children of alumni are admitted to a college over better-qualified applicants. For example, Al Gore and President George W. Bush have fathers who attended Harvard and Yale, respectively. Both Gore and Bush had mediocre SAT scores and bad grades from their prep schools, but the fact that their fathers (who were U.S. senators) gave buckets of money to the schools was given a higher priority than their academic qualifications.
It's clear to me that everyone gets a share of preferences. So if wealthy people, athletes, legacy applicants and poor people are given preferences, why can't under-represented minorities also get a little consideration? Getting into college is never based solely on one's academic merit. Grades and test scores are important, but what a student can bring to a university community can be even more significant.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.