September 23, 2010

Reaffirming Affirmative Action

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I read fellow columnist Judah Bellin’s ’12 Aug. 23 column, “Diversity and its Consequences”, the day before I had to turn in my own; I didn’t have a chance to say much about it. Then the next column I was writing was close to Mexican Independence Day and … well, I was going to let it slide. But then, a fellow Sun writer e-mailed me and asked me about why I let it slide. And he was right, I shouldn’t have. So let’s just say that I apologize for writing this so late. But hey, better late than never.If you did read Bellin’s column, you read it a month ago, so quick recap: The author questions whether race-based affirmative action is indeed doing anything for our universities, proposes class-based affirmative action, and says universities “should make sure that the students they admit will benefit from the school — and not the other way around.” He refers specifically to the high dropout rates from black students in law schools and says that, in general, affirmative action is a “presumptuous” act that uses minorities as “pawns in our little game of self awareness.” He argues upper-middle class white college students are the only ones benefiting from a diverse college environment.I do agree on some of these accounts. It is true that a class-based approach would yield a higher level of socioeconomic diversity on college campuses. And indeed, it seems diversity is an image that universities like to portray to make your college bildungsroman look cooler than your parents’. It sells, after all. However, affirmative action happens to be largely class-based to start with, since minorities tend to occupy the lower rungs of the U.S. socioeconomic ladder (with given exceptions, of course). And your college bildungsroman is probably interesting, but I highly doubt that’s the only reason affirmative action exists in the first place; I’d expect this would be obvious. As Bellin’s column shows, it is not.Bellin’s opinion, while logically framed, leads to some potentially troublesome consequences. A class-based affirmative action system, instead of a race-based one, would pretty much ensure that most of the people receiving the preferential treatment affirmative action offers would be white, by a simple majority count. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We just go back to the idea of a homogeneous society which becomes more fallacious with every passing second. For what it’s worth, yes, in principle our little game of self-awareness could use a reality check. There is a need to make the upper-middle-white class think about something other than their upper-middle-class selves. Even if that were the only reason, I think it’s noble enough. After all, we are supposed to be smart and not that narrow-minded … right?Additionally, it is often the people who benefit from affirmative action that inject the passion we in the upper-middle class, used to being comfortable, used to having everything, are missing. People that appreciate what we take for granted. Because they know first-hand how hard it is to get where they are, and they will take far more advantage of their opportunities than many of us can even dream of. They are an inspiration. Of course we benefit from it. But so do they.“Indeed, even as they praise diversity, they ultimately hope that disadvantaged students leave their culture behind to join the ranks of the upper middle class,” says Bellin. Well, duh. I thought they were supposed to go back to how and where they came from, no upward mobility whatsoever. Without disregarding anyone’s roots here, it is implicit that college will get you further up the socioeconomic ladder than where you were when you started. (It’d better. All this money, this time, this stress, for not advancing? Seriously?) One of the biggest tasks to learn in college is learning snob-speak: Some of us already have it because we grew up with it. Other people, though, have to learn it now, during college, to be able to thrive in the new social arena they have been introduced to. And that is great, but it requires a lot, lot, lot more learning than what is needed for the people that are already knowledgeable of the common ground the upper-middle class covers. Do white upper-middle class people have to go through this as well? Definitely. But it is undeniable that it’s much easier, due to their own familiarity to things that those who benefit from affirmative action experience for the first time.When I was contacted by a Teach for America recruiter last week, it was obvious my ethnicity was one of the main reasons I was being recruited. I was constantly reminded of the achievement gap between different socioeconomic backgrounds and how minorities are the most affected by this. I was told how my life story could be an inspiration. Apart from wondering what they know about my life story to start with, and apart from feeling awkward and flattered simultaneously, I think this is one of the reasons why affirmative action needs to exist.Trying to reduce the astoundingly high social and economic inequality of both this country and countless others begins by giving people the push they need to succeed. People don’t like to be pushed. Trust and hope are necessary for someone to make that leap. Identification plays a very, very important role in trust-building, which is why, regardless of how terrible a teacher I could be, I would make a bigger difference than a blonde sorority girl in an inner city L.A. school full of Latino students. I just look more the part when preaching, “you can also go to college.” And getting minorities into the college ranks is sorely needed to bridge that gap, so they can thrive, become lawmakers and job-creators that will benefit the sections of society they come from, creating a more unified community while taking a try in reducing social inequality, while opening the door that will make others do the same. While Bellin says law school students that are getting in through affirmative action do not graduate, are we getting the entire picture? Where are they now? Why did they leave? And aren’t they still far, far, far better off than they were when they were in high school? Are they not, just for getting in, an example for many a high school student that may consider not graduating? How is that not extraordinary?I do not advocate for a lowering of standards in any way. I do, however, propose that perspective is necessary. Extraordinary people are extraordinarily rare. It is ludicrous to expect that affirmative action will suffice to not only level the playing field for those who benefit from it, but on top of that, have them exceed everyone’s expectations. Even in this implausible scenario, cases abound where this happens. There are cases where they don’t. Not unlike graduate schools and universities, it is all about creating an environment where those few extraordinary people among us will gain the confidence and trust to make the leap and change the world. The rest of us are happy to watch. Affirmative action is one of the most important driving forces for social equality in this country, creating the impression that everyone that tries hard enough can get through the hoops, get a college education, climb the ladder of upward mobility. Affirmative action buys this hope. I believe it is money well spent.Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at fulloa@cornellsun.com. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Florencia Ulloa