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What's Skin Color Got to Do With Education?

Irene hangs out at the University of Texas at Austin where affirmative action was banned in 1996
Irene hangs out at the University of Texas at Austin where affirmative action was banned in 1996
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Those are the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, spoken at the March on Washington in 1963. They were words that cried out for justice on behalf of African Americans who for so long had been denied equal access to the American dream because of their race.

African Americans saw some of King's dream come true when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, after which he issued Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

For the first time the words "affirmative action" were used to signify steps the government would take to ensure justice for minorities. It wasn't enough to enact laws outlawing discrimination against blacks - there had to be specific efforts made to include minorities. The words "affirmative action" remain as volatile today as they were then, with some people saying now that affirmative action means "reverse racism" against whites. Almost four decades later, America remains deeply divided over how best to achieve equality for all her citizens.


Petrified in Sedona

Nowhere does the debate over affirmative action hit closer to home than in the field of education. Education has always been seen as the main gateway to achieving the American Dream, and a college education the greatest guarantee of success. Educational access is, in my mind, the best indicator we have of whether we are living up to our democratic promises. Ever since Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional, the battle over integration and diversity in schools has been one of the most important and emotional issues of our time.

When the courts ordered that students be bused outside their areas to achieve racial balance in schools in the 1970s, many people protested violently. "White flight" took effect in many urban cities as white families fled to the suburbs. At universities, "affirmative action" was instituted to attract students who previously had been shut out. By the late 1970s, affirmative action was becoming just as controversial as "forced busing." Today there is a racial divide between those who support affirmative action as a necessity and those who believe it reinforces racism by judging people on their skin color. People of color tend to support affirmative action policies, while most whites in surveys do not believe in the "preferential treatment" accorded to minorities under affirmative action.

Asians make up almost 40 percent of UC Berkeley, almost 50 percent of UCLA, and over 50 percent of the University of California at Irvine
Asians make up almost 40 percent of UC Berkeley, almost 50 percent of UCLA, and over 50 percent of the University of California at Irvine
However, there is one minority group that has a very complicated view of affirmative action, and that's my own. Some Asian Americans have argued that affirmative action actually limits the number of spots for Asians at universities by setting up "quotas" that let "less-qualified" minorities in at our expense. Certain politicians have pointed out that if Asian Americans don't need the "helping hand" of affirmative action, why should other minorities need it? I know back in high school I agreed with those politicians. As I considered which college I wanted to attend, I was bitter about the fact that as an Asian-American, I knew that my grades and test scores would have to be higher than average to get into places like the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). "If only I were black or Latino or Indian," I used to say. "Then I'd totally make it in, but all because I'm Taiwanese, I have higher hurdles to jump."

UCLA hosts a bunch of groups angry about the loss of diversity at their school
UCLA hosts a bunch of groups angry about the loss of diversity at their school
Whites who shared my resentment have been filing lawsuits in court since the 1970s, charging that they have been denied admission to high schools, colleges and graduate schools because of discriminatory policies. The Supreme Court case that currently rules the land is the 1978 case of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. A white student had sued a UC medical school for having a set-aside quota of guaranteeing at least 4 blacks admission to the program. Justice Lewis Powell believed that in order to get beyond race, we had to first take account of race and the impact it has on people's lives. Though the Court ruled that quotas like the one at the UC medical school were unconstitutional, they allowed for race to be used as one of many factors in determining who gets admission to universities.

Since the Bakke case, a slew of other lawsuits have been filed across the country, not only at the university level, but at magnet and private high schools as well. In the 1990s, the tide seemed to be turning permanently against affirmative action programs. The University of California, renowned for its reputation as the model public university system, in 1995 decided that race would no longer be a factor in university admissions. The following year, Proposition 209 passed in California forbidding all affirmative action programs not only in education, but in employment and contracting as well. A Circuit Court also decided in Hopwood vs. Texas that the University of Texas law school had violated the Constitution's "equal protection" clause by factoring in the race of applicants and deliberately separating applicants of black and Latino descent. The Supreme Court any day now will probably issue another ruling clarifying laws regarding affirmative action, and could even abolish outright all such programs.

Feminist groups protested against California's Prop 209, saying that women had greatly benefited from affirmative action
Feminist groups protested against California's Prop 209, saying that women had greatly benefited from affirmative action
What's been the effect of all these "color-blind" policies? Minority enrollments have gone down by eyebrow-raising numbers. At UCLA in 1995, there were 260 blacks, 800 Latinos and 48 American Indians in the freshman class. Last year, those numbers were down to 157 blacks, 525 Latinos and 16 American Indians. At the graduate school level, the numbers are bleaker. UC Berkeley law school went from admitting 20 black students to admitting one. One! Even those who fought for color-blind policies are astonished at the numbers.

Groups are springing up at college campuses demanding that the gains of the past 20 years not be rolled back. The Affirmative Action Coalition is a multiracial effort that includes blacks, Chicanos, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indians and others and that has chapters on most of UC campuses. College admissions offices, while complying with orders not to consider the race of applicants, now try to broaden their standards by including criteria other than grades and test scores. Leadership ability, extracurriculars and "overcoming hardships" are now factored in. In Texas, the top 10 percent of every high school class automatically gains entry into public colleges. The UC schools are considering abolishing the dreaded SAT. I find it heartening that, whereas 30 years ago most universities didn't give much thought to the diversity of their classes, now most see it as a badge of shame to have low numbers of minorities.

But the central question remains: Is affirmative action the right way to remedy the fact that minorities aren't adequately represented at colleges? Brian Waters, an engineering student at the University of Texas, says no. "Call me idealistic, but it is wrong to treat people differently because of the color of their skin. I agree that the unbalanced racial makeup of our school is a problem, but the solution is not to lower the standards for some."

Until I got to college, I believed I deserved to be admitted because I had a good GPA and high test scores. I took for granted that I came from a high school that provided great teachers and numerous Advanced Placement courses. I didn't realize how many blacks and Latinos are likely to come from segregated schools where there aren't enough books or classrooms. While only 5 percent of predominantly white schools have populations where the majority of students live in poverty, for predominantly black and Latino schools, that number is a whopping 80 percent.

In addition, public schools now are just as segregated as they were at the time of Brown vs Board. If it's so wrong to treat people differently because of skin color, I wonder why so many schools, health services, and cities have such crappy conditions when there happen to be a lot of black and brown faces living there.

A teach-in on California admissions policy attended by 500 students at the University of California at Santa Cruz
A teach-in on California admissions policy attended by 500 students at the University of California at Santa Cruz
What I find interesting about this whole debate is the sense from some whites and Asians that America is betraying her heritage of rewarding people based on merit and ability. While it's nice to think of America as the land of opportunity, I know in reality that the record is a lot more complicated. When all the prizes in life were going to white males at the expense of women and minorities, no one complained about the inherent "unfairness" of the system.

Even today, colleges give preferences to athletes, children of alumni (which mostly benefits whites), tuba players and people from North Dakota in order have a balanced class that is diverse in interests and backgrounds. So how come when the preferences just happen to be given to blacks for once, all hell breaks loose and we need to have lawsuits asserting how "un-American" this practice is? I've learned that life isn't fair, that sometimes you need luck and yes, connections to get ahead. But taking it out on the people who have suffered the most from our nation's history seems to be wrong-headed.

I can only imagine that one day race won't determine the type of high schools we go to and whether we have nice parks and libraries to visit and non-cockroach-infested houses to live in. That would be the day we could finally concentrate on the "content of our character" and not the "color of our skin."


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


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