April 24, 2014

MANDELBLATT | In Favor of Affirmative Action

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Just recently, the United States celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. This speech was delivered in midst of the bloody war that erupted from the attempt to keep an entire population of people enslaved. And when President Lincoln stood “on a great battlefield of that war,” he urged the American people “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” Yet here we are, 150 years after making a promise that race would no longer divide this nation, and our task is far from over. In fact, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, our ability to fulfill that promise has become even more difficult.

As the National Women’s Law Center stated at the beginning of the 21st century, “Eliminating or curtailing affirmative action would not only halt the forward progress that women, as well as minorities, have been able to achieve; it would mark a giant leap backward in this nation’s journey toward equal opportunity for all.”

This statement is supported by the statistics of Michigan’s higher education diversity since the ban was implemented in 2006: “Blacks comprise just 4.6 percent of undergraduates this year, compared to 8.9 percent in 1995 and 7 percent in 2006.”

It is this significant drop in representation of minority persons in higher education that forces us to remember why affirmative action was implemented in the first place. The purpose of affirmative action, according to President Lyndon Johnson, is that “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 then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”

It is a failure to assume that all people have had an equal chance to finish that “race” because the quality of public education in this nation is stratified by the condition of one’s neighborhood. In 2010, 73.5 percent of children in poverty were black and Hispanic, which means that those children were denied an opportunity to reach for more. Those children did not have access to opportunities that would enable them to have a competitive application come time to apply for college. However, affirmative action would prevent those children from being further penalized for their lack of opportunity.

The Supreme Court’s ruling upholds the façade that we have completed our “great task,” that we live in a society in which minorities are represented equally in higher education and leadership roles. However, a colorblind society is neither our reality now, nor should it be our future. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent, “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable … we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.” By pretending that the problems of race relations have been solved, the Supreme Court is harming any hope of progressing toward true equality.

A “colorblind society” is also far from ideal because it would harm the very concept of diversity that makes this country so great. Homogenizing all persons would be a loss to our country’s culture and values. What we instead need to do is to celebrate differences by enabling all people with opportunities to reach their full potential.

When one person is given the tools to succeed, he or she becomes a role model for those with similar backgrounds. Poverty in this nation is a cycle. Crime in this nation is a cycle. Inequality in this nation is a cycle. It is time to make success a cycle prevalent among people of all races. Poverty in this nation is a cycle. Crime in this nation is a cycle. Inequality in this nation is a cycle. It is time to make success a cycle prevalent among people of all races.

Let us tear down the obstacles so embedded in society that tell children they need not try. Let us instead tell children across all races and genders that in this nation, if you work hard enough, your future is bright. Let us finally finish the work we promised to do on that battlefield many years ago.