Affirmative Action: Institutionalizing or Eliminating Racism

(note: this is an issue that I am constantly working on, learning more and evolving. If you would like to know my current stance, please ask.)

More Questions than Answers?

As a white, female student, I have often been told that I will "do well" in the engineering profession. While still in high school, I was a part of "Project-Lead-the-Way", a pre-engineering pathway that encouraged students to take high-school level engineering courses. Early in the program, one of my teachers told me that I would have no problem getting a job after I graduated because I was a women. But, why should my gender have anything to do with professional success in the engineering field? After I graduate, I do not want my employment status to be based on gender, race or other attributes not of my choosing. (Note: The sentiment expressed by my high-school teacher has not been unique. People of all genders have also expressed similar opinions throughout my college career.) This attitude is held widely as an outcome of affirmative action. I am outraged that as a female engineering student, I have access to special studies areas, scholarships and other resources that are not easily available to my male peers.

History of Affirmative Action. Affirmative action is a term that includes many policies and initiative that serve to "overcome the effects of past or present practices, policies of other barriers to equal opportunity." Affirmative action started with best of intentions: to remedy the effects of undisputed past discrimination. Also, secondary purposes of affirmative action are to encourage publicly funded institutions to be more representative of their communities and to enhance diversity. The addition of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that the state shall not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws...", laid the groundwork for affirmative action by validating that "all men are created equal". In 1964, the Civil Rights Act enforced the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by outlawing segregation and creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This Commission, "tasked with ending employment discrimination in the United States", also provided guidance for the implementation of affirmative action programs. Originally, taking affirmative action meant ensuring that a certain percentage of a staff or university was composed of racial minorities. However, the Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke eliminated this practice in favor of Bakke who claimed the quota systems kept him out of the University through reverse discrimination. While eliminating racial quotas, this court case upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action through other means.

Academic Programs Targeting Minority Students. Within the University of Colorado at Boulder, there are several academic programs that target historically underrepresented students. Both the Women in Engineering Program (WIEP) and the Multicultural Engineering Program (MEP), are student programs "that are focused on increasing the diversity of the engineering student population and providing a supportive climate". (CU Engineering Diversity Plan) The mission of WIEP is to foster the success of women in engineering by recruiting, retaining, and encouraging students. And, the mission of MEP is to recruit, retain and graduate students who are culturally underrepresented in the fields of engineering and applied science.

While the University "takes affirmative action to increase ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity; to employ qualified disabled individuals; and to provide equal opportunity to all students and employees" (CU Equal Opportunity Policy), the University's non-discrimination statement declares that:
UCB provides equal opportunity for all students and applicants for admission and for all employees and applicants for employment regardless of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran status, age, or sex, except where sex or age is a bona fide occupational qualification. Discrimination on the basis of disability in educational programs and activities and employment at UCB is prohibited.
By targeting minority students (current and prospective) are we discriminating against those students in the majority?

Under the Chancellor's Leadership Residential Academic Program is a subprogram: the Ethnic Living and Learning Community (ELLC). The ELLC is a "living and learning community" that supports "multiracial living" and "develops culturally competent leaders who practice an ethic of civic and social responsibility". A requirement for participation in this program is first-generation status or racial minority status. By separating these students from the general population, the students enjoy the psychological safety that comes from sharing an experience with other students from similar backgrounds. But, if all students are to benefit from a "climate of diversity", how does keeping minority students separate from general student population add to that climate?

Colorado Civil Rights Initiative. This November, Coloradans will be voting on an amendment to the State Constitution. The proposed text to Amendment 46 is as follows:
"The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting"
This Amendment would effectively eliminate all state-sponsored affirmative action programs. Similar statements have already passed with an overwhelming majority in California, and Washington. And (along with Colorado) Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma all have similar petitions for the fall. Proponents of the Amendment are calling it the "Colorado Civil Rights Initiative", while opponents to the Amendment believe that this misnomer indicates that being pro-affirmative action means that you are anti-civil rights. For academic programs that target minority students, the most noticeable change would be that scholarships ear-marked for minority students would need to be funneled through private channels.

Language. One side calls it affirmative action and the other calls it reverse discrimination or preferential treatment. Are we all saying the same thing? Do we all desire the same end result? Minority/Majority, 1-up/1-down groups, Overrepresented/Underrepresented, and Oppressors/Oppressed are all different terms for explaining the same thing.
Rather than debating affirmative action, let's strive for understanding rather than talking over each other. We might be surprised to realize that we have more in common then we have different. (Note: even the participants of debates seemed to be carefully chosen from all minority backgrounds so as not to appear that the only the white-male is against affirmative action.)

White Privilege. On many different occasions, I have not felt valued because of my skin-color. When filling out optional forms regarding demographics, I often leave the "ethnicity" section blank since I worry about the negative impact that this selection may have. Every individual has been affected (positively or negatively) by affirmative action policies. I can think of many examples where affirmative action has given me an "unfair" advantage over others. But, when thinking about affirmative action, I often ignore an important concept: white privilege. White privilege is a term used to describe the historic advantage that white people have over other ethnic groups. It differs from racism in that I may be unknowingly be receiving benefits from my "whiteness". This is important because it blankets an entire race when on an individual level, members of this group may or may not be prejudice. Similar to white privilege, I think that affirmative action blankets an entire group regardless of individual circumstances.

Color-Blindness and Diversity. "Now, I don't see race...People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums." The character of Steven Colbert, a political satirist and host of The Colbert Report, describes himself as racially colorblind. But, is a racially color-blind society a desirable outcome? Striving to completely ignore is not only a cheap cop-out, but it also ignores all areas of difference. I agree that "A climate of healthy diversity is one in which people value individual and group differences, respect the perspectives of others, and communicate openly." (CU Diversity Plan) The University (and I) feel that greater diversity will enhance the quality of UCB and enrich understanding between students, employees and the entire community." In addition to overt characteristics such as race and gender, we should also strive for more covert characteristics and "diversity of thoughts".

Are we there yet? Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama marked an important historic first: the inclusion of two different minority groups as potential presidential nominees. Is this a result of affirmative action? Currently, Barack Obama, (the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party) is the first African American of a major political party to have a chance at the U.S. Presidency. As seen by this campaign, our social practices have not yet to catch up with our social awareness. If we were already "there", Barack Obama as president would not seem like such a revolutionary idea. If affirmative action was necessary at one time, when will it no longer be necessary?

Solutions. Is it time for post racism? To move beyond race, class, gender, et cetera? In order to move beyond race we must affirm that we are ultimately all members of the human race. "Like many other policies, affirmative action is not optimal, but necessary. It is only a means to an end and not an end in itself" (Wu 172). Rather than having a blanket policy that affects groups, let's have policies that support the individual. ("We should apply specific remedies for specific victims of discrimination." (Chavez, 314) Rather than waiting until the college level to right the historic wrongs, let's put more funding into primary and secondary education. Rather than having academic programs that target specific minority groups, let's have a Diversity Center that affirms the need for all types of diversity. Rather than striving for retention of minority students, let's strive for a sustainable structure that desires to retain all students.

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
(John Lennon)

Works Cited
Affirmative Action Debate. Perf. Dinesh D'Souza, Frank Wu. Videocassette. C-SPAN; Brown University ; Purdue Research Foundation, 1997.
Chavez, Linda. "Promoting Racial Harmony." The Affirmative Action Debate. Ed. George E. Curry. Addison-Wesley Company, 1996. 314-325.
Curry, George E., ed. The Affirmative Action Debate. Addison-Wesley Company, 1996.
D'Souza, Dinesh J. The End of Racism. Free P Paperbacks, 1995.
"Diversity Plan." University of Colorado At Boulder. .
"Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Policy." University of Colorado At Boulder. .
"Is It Time to End Affirmative Action?" NPR. .
"Nondiscrimination Statement." University of Colorado At Boulder. .
Wu, Frank H. Yellow. Basic Books, 2002.


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