Wednesday, August 27, 2003

A Hand Up, a Crutch or Feel Good Symbolism?

I suppose one could also add to the list reverse racism, but that might be a bit too incendiary and some readers might just stop there or else have their defenses so far up that they cannot see beyond them. What I would really like to do here is walk through a leftist critique of affirmative action in higher education. It just so happens that my own problems with affirmative action in higher education come from both the left and what might be termed the right. (Personally I do not buy into the notion of opposing AA on grounds that is discriminatory is a right wing idea, but nevertheless that is how it is described in the public discourse.)
Why might a good leftist/liberal oppose a policy that is meant to level the playing field between under represented minorities (hereafter referred to as URM) and whites? I think that I might start with a somewhat obvious reason- its lack of effectiveness. The United States higher education system has been engaged in affirmative action for well over three decades yet there remain widespread disparities in educational attainment between whites and URM's. Could this be the effects of systemic racism- perhaps, but I hesitate to accept such a cause. The intent of affirmative action is not just to admit a few more URMs to college and universities and graduate schools, but to even out the distribution of educational opportunities and success among the various races and ethnicities in the United States. The data clearly show this has not happened, and that although there may have been some narrowing it is not nearly as significant as one might hope for with good public policy.
But I think a more emotionally persuasive argument might be constructed around the notion of affirmative action as mere feel good symbolism. It allows educated and successful whites to feel good that "something" is being done, while completing ignoring the root cause of academic inequality. And that cause is the inequity of our public primary and secondary educational system, where children's education is determined more by where s/he happens to be born or grow up, than by her/his inherent abilities. It is apparent to even the most casual observer that wide discrepancies exist in the education provided to inner city kids and that provided to their suburban peers. And while this may not always break down on the neat and clear lines of race, it (poverty) does serve as a fairly good proxy. I would argue that white leaders pay lip service to improving education by supporting limited schemes to equalize funding among school districts, but research is quite clear that it actually takes more resources to provide a similar education to poor children, because of factors outside of the classroom related to poverty.
I would further argue that white leaders may only go so far in their support for reform as their allies in the teachers' unions will allow. Our public K-12 education system is a wasteland for those who are poor and nothing short of radical change will transform these educational ghettos into productive schools. It is easy for a white leader (and unfortunately many black leaders take this same path) to mouth platitudes about improving education and providing access to college for URMS, but their words lack any real commitment and these leaders are unwilling to spend the political capital needed to create a quality education system.
Another intriguing question is what else might be motivating white leaders to forestall radical change. Might they worry that real educational equity could result in more competition for limited seats at prestigious colleges and universities? As the system is now constructed, K-12 educational inequities guaranty a limited pool of "qualified" URM applicants for college. However, by increasing educational equity at the K-12 level we might in fact be enabling scores and scores of URM access to college. And they would compete directly with their white suburban counterparts.
I would like to hope that white society (among which I am a member) is not that nefarious. But sometimes I do have to wonder, given its track record with welfare policies that furthered dependency and created a government plantation in place of the cotton plantations that once plagued American society.


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