March 26, 2013

HARRINGTON: The Unspoken Words of an Affirmative Action Beneficiary

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As the class of 2017 is accepted and students begin to hear back from internships, graduate schools and employers, conversations surrounding merit and affirmative action seem to be almost inevitable. With this conversation comes the problematic rhetoric that people of color and women are taking the hard-earned spots of white men who may have worked harder. I will never forget the first time someone told me that I didn’t deserve to be accepted into Cornell. I had proudly posted a picture of myself in a Cornell 2013 T-shirt on Facebook, and it took no time for a so-called “friend” to message me saying, “Congratulations on being accepted, Ashley; I told you being black would help you get in.”  What this person meant to say was that I only got into Cornell because I was black, that I didn’t deserve to be accepted and that I took his spot. At the time, my 18-year-old self didn’t have the language to respond to the backhanded comments challenging my qualifications. This article articulates the words I wish I could have spoken.

The affirmative action narrative dominating the media implies that the policy began in the 1960s with President Johnson’s initiatives to benefit people of color. The reality is that affirmative action began long before this. Since this country’s founding, white men have received affirmative action by institutionalizing laws that elevate white men and push down anyone without the right pedigree. In order to discuss affirmative action, we must acknowledge the history that many prefer to overlook. In 1862, The Homestead Act was passed to preference white men gaining access to land. The act allowed the federal government to steal Native American land and give 160 acre homesteads to white male applicants at no cost.  Descendents of these white men continue to live on the land that has been passed down through generations. Then there was the G.I. Bill, which predominantly benefited white veterans.  According to scholar Ira Katznelson, the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow and was not enforced by the government but by “white community officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators” who enforced racist practices. Then, of course, there was slavery, lynching, the mass genocide of Native Americans, housing and school segregation (which continues in practice today), internment camps, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and much more, which were institutionalized to push down entire classes of people. In order to even engage in a dialogue about affirmative action, we must acknowledge these histories and the way in which their oppressive legacies still remain.

Affirmative action, as we know it today, recognizes that an American meritocracy is a lie.  It seeks to rectify institutional injustices and acknowledges that certain people were given an unfair head start because of their race, socioeconomic class or gender. This is not reverse racism, a term invented by those in power to invert the concept of racism for the benefit of white people — reverse racism does not exist.  Racism is about power, and we continue to live in a white supremacist society; affirmative action acknowledges this.

However, affirmative action is commonly depicted in the media as placing unqualified people in spaces that they are not qualified to be in.  It’s depicted as people of color and women of all colors taking a white person’s spot.  In the Fisher v. University of Texas case currently being heard by the Supreme Court, Abigal Fisher argues that unqualified students of color were accepted in her place. The facts surrounding the case indicate that, of the students admitted to the University of Texas with lower test scores and grades than Fisher, five were Black or Latino and 42 were white. Nevertheless, Fisher attacked the five black and Latino students because mediocre white students are OK, but mediocre students of color have no place at the university. After all, only in the U.S. can a mediocre white man who graduates at the bottom of his class and speaks with incorrect grammar become president of the United States.

It is a misguided assumption to presume that students of color, women and those of lower economic backgrounds accepted into places like Cornell aren’t qualified. Despite common misconceptions, those who benefit from affirmative action have excelled in the opportunities presented to them despite the institutional roadblocks that have come their way.  I, myself, am a beneficiary of affirmative action and I’m just as qualified as my peers who went to expensive private schools and took science classes in state of the art labs. I just didn’t have the same opportunities as some. While many may think I unfairly benefited when applying to colleges because of the color of my skin, the reality remains that when I sit next to my white peers, the world will continually paint me as the less qualified student and, when I graduate, the less qualified professional. Opponents of affirmative action take advantage of this sentiment in order to further their own agenda.  However, in this argument, they show their own biases and provide evidence for why affirmative action must still exist.

I am not arguing that affirmative action is a perfect system, and in order to be effective it must consistently evolve with changing paradigms of race, gender and socio-economic status. In many ways it is just a band-aid, but we are not yet in a time when the band-aid can be taken off without further cementing the fruits of oppression, as countless disparities across racial, gender and socioeconomic lines still exist. To say that we no longer need affirmative action is to trivialize and disguise structural and institutional barriers that have existed in the past and continue today. Thus, in order to move toward equity in America we must commit to honest dialogue and to caring across our diverse identities. As James Baldwin said, “It is the failure to care that lies at the core of this system of control and every caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.”

Ashley Harrington is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at aharrington@cornellsun.com. Dancing in the Margins appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ashley Harrington