Affirmative Action’s Shaky Advocates

Bush’s announced stance on the Michigan affirmative action case has elicited hope-anger-sadness-hope-anger-sadness countrywide. Over the course of the past week, I have overheard multiple student discussions on the issue. In most discussions – I cannot say ‘debate,’ because students seemed too cagey to ever actually oppose affirmative action – students cited “access to different resources” as their argument for affirmative action. One student used an example that a faculty member had recently given: A wealthy white student who has had access to SAT prep courses and SAT prep tutors cannot possibly be compared to a poor black student who cannot even afford to take the SAT more than once. Even if the latter student’s scores are slightly lower, a college admissions office should favor the black student over the white. And that is why minority students should unilaterally be given priority over white students in college admissions. The problem with this rationale is that it is economic affirmative action and not racial affirmative action. Equating preference for the economically disadvantaged with preference for racial minorities is distressing and dangerous, in that doing so reinforces negative stereotypes. The implication is that all blacks are poor, all whites are rich, and any possible racial-economic cross-pollination can only occur years from now when another generation has finished with higher education. Reducing affirmative action to a reward for overcoming economic setbacks completely disregards the legitimate setback of facing prejudice in social and political life. It is not as if we Andover students are unconscious of the existence of prejudice; the subject dominates workshops, classroom discussions, and All-School Meetings throughout the year, not just on the third Monday in January. So why do we not immediately cite this reason when we all seem to unanimously support affirmative action? Why does the first argument to jump into our heads to justify our reflexive desire to help ethnic minorities not specifically help ethnic minorities? As I overheard these discussions on affirmative action, I heard statements that fishtailed from argument to argument. Everyone seems to support affirmative action, but nobody seems to be able to remember why. Are we interested in affirmative action because we want to provide more opportunities to minorities, since they as a group have been greatly wronged now and in the past; because we want to hearten minority children by having greater minority representation in positions of power and authority (assuming higher education makes power and authority more accessible); or because of purely aesthetic reasons, to have a more heterogeneous look in a college’s student body? So which is it? Not to say that the aforementioned reasons are mutually exclusive – and in fact one would assume that the more varied the reasons for a resolution, the more desirable the resolution. I note only that when it comes to why they support affirmative action or why they scorn Bush’s brief supporting the plaintiffs, students frequently are unable to articulate their reasoning, or at least can only regurgitate some incoherent, fragmentary form of an argument they heard recently. I do not attribute this dialectic debility to students’ general ineloquence; I fault instead the inability of this school to transcend PC concerns. To many, the topic of affirmative action is too emotionally charged and too combustible to be publicly critiqued. We are too afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of analysis because we are constantly afraid of offending someone. And so, instead of deliberately formulating our own beliefs, we adopt the socially accepted view on the topic and spout spotty rationalizations that are often relievingly irrelevant to race. Or we choose to paint “affirmative action” in such broad, vague strokes that it becomes an empty, defunct phrase. On MLK Day my Freshman year, the entire Junior class had an informal talk-show style discussion on current applications of affirmative action in academia and the workplace. At the end, the teachers leading the workshop announced that they wanted to survey our “feelings on affirmative action.” “Let’s see by a show of hands,” they said. “Who is in favor of creating a fair, equal playing field?” Any other phrasing would have left room for disagreement. Each of us must decide on a motivation, a specific purpose, before we can discuss an appropriate, specific strategy. We must define and then defend “fair[ness].” Like it or not, justice is always subjective.