February 7, 2012

Affirming Affirmative Action

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People often criticize what they don’t attempt to understand. The continuous debate surrounding affirmative action is testament to this. Quite honestly, in this time of college admissions, no one is guaranteed admissions based on GPAs and test scores alone. College acceptance can also be about those who have potential and need new challenges because they have exhausted the resources in their current situation. We all have expectations given our credentials within our meritocratic society, but it would be a huge mistake to forget history. Racial minorities were not afforded the equal opportunity to earn, vote and exercise their rights, based on legalized discrimination. This identity of skin color cannot be changed or hidden.

Indeed, much progress has been made, as we are now 150 years past the abolition of slavery. Many people forget that other discriminatory policies were legalized that created more barriers, such as the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, which lasted for 80 years even after the abolition of slavery. It wasn’t until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, that the majority of African Americans were finally allowed to vote. Yes, there are exceptions; some minorities succeeded despite legislative obstacles, but affirmative action is to ensure some space for people that were historically and systematically excluded because of their race. This history is real and we have to acknowledge it, but sadly, many elementary, middle and high schools do not teach much about it in their curriculum. Furthermore, schools fail to inform students about the contribution black people have made to the United States. Besides the basics of slavery, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, African American history, as well as the history of other racial minorities in the U.S., is not discussed often enough. The existence of institutionalized discrimination and injustice is the reason why we need affirmative action and why this policy is necessary to further the goals and values of our nation.

Although it was created for their benefit, it is a misconception that African Americans and other racial minorities benefit most from affirmative action. Historically, white women and then women of any background have benefited most from affirmative action, which is observed in the shifting gender demographics of college campuses. There are more women than men. In the last 30 years, college acceptances of white women have increased, which is largely due to affirmative action. If people of color were accepted on affirmative action just as white women have been, we would have more students of color. I personally don’t feel white women have taken “my spot” at the other universities I applied for, but we do need to be critical of how the system works, and not point fingers at people.

Some students see little value in the contributions of minority students in higher education. I’ve heard this on campus. The lower average of SAT scores for African American students is just that, an average: Some students score far above and some below, but it does not translate to lesser academic success in the future. As a matter of fact, black females are graduating at a retention rate of 92 percent, higher than those of white males who stand at 91 percent. This is proof that firstly, SAT scores do not necessarily determine one’s academic success in college and secondly, that those often included in the discussion of “disadvantaged,” can and will succeed given the opportunity. Recently, my father told me a story about his friend who is currently a judge. When he was applying to college, he applied to Princeton University and originally received an acceptance letter. However, it was rescinded once he went to his interview and his interviewer saw that he was a person of color. In this situation, a qualified person, who applied to a predominantly white school despite the sentiments of the times, was rejected based on his skin color — something over which he had no control.

Let’s all focus on doing better for each other, with fewer frustrations about personal situations claiming that affirmative action “took my spot.” There are bigger issues in the world; maybe we can solve them if we study a bit more and point fingers a bit less. College admission decides who is denied or accepted, not our peers. Cornell and other institutions have used the guidelines of affirmative action to serve their best interest in college acceptance, but choose not to accept those who might serve as a “liability” or the most disadvantaged.

The debate over affirmative action is used to create tension between racial groups; we are smarter than this and should not fall into these sentiments. I don’t know how long it will be necessary, but as of 2012, I don’t see a need for affirmative action to disappear just yet. Affirmative action is increasing the chances of equal opportunity, but still some colleges seem to administer it in different ways.

Many minorities are capable and deserve the acceptance they receive. Even though it is not called affirmative action, there are other forms of “preference” for all students. The athletic recruitment rate at Cornell is higher than those accepted on affirmative action. Cornell admissions also gives “preference” to students of legacy, who are predominantly white, as well as preference to the children of administrators and professors (but that’s more on the D.L.). Black students barely make up six percent of the Cornell population — we can see who really benefits more from a preferential system.

The small numbers of African Americans who actually benefit from the racial part of affirmative action is one step in the right direction, but does not make up its entirety. Affirmative action is supposed to help the underrepresented and disadvantaged, and would not be necessary today if African Americans were afforded the necessary resources and environments to succeed in the first place: equal opportunity. Of course there is not equal education for everyone in the entire nation or world, but the hope is that everyone can be afforded equal opportunity.

Sasha Mack is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ssl225@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Sasha Mack