Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
August 1st, 2003

Affirmative Action and the Education Abyss

From the Supreme Court to L.A.'s Inner-City Schools

 
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This summer seeping through the quagmire of continuous news coverage of disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the latest J.Lo and Ben antics was news on the ongoing skirmishes over affirmative action.

But lost in any discussion was one of the root causes of low minority educational achievement—the abysmal state of public education in the United States.

Split decision—splitting hairs?
In late June the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action as applied to the University of Michigan

target=_blank>law school admissions policy—but struck down its

target=_blank>undergraduate policy.

Why the difference? Well the court reasoned that the undergraduate program used quotas in determining admission of minority students by giving all minority applicants the same 20 point bonus, thus, by the court’s reasoning, unfairly boosting their advantage over non-minority applicants.

Whereas the court found that the law school used an ” individualized” approach seeking a “critical mass” of disadvantaged minority students who were awarded bonus points on an individual basis.

A small difference, but apparently critical according to guidelines established in the 1978 landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that universities could only take race into account as a “plus factor” in evaluating an individual candidate.

The wrath of Justice Thomas
Discouraging as the split decision was, it was nonetheless amusing reading the self-conscious hissy fit of Justice Clarence Thomas . In his dissent, Justice Thomas rants against the “know-it-all elites.” Yet this angry black man is the product of the elite Yale Law School.

It seems his problem with affirmative action is personal. He despises the fact that some think his successes in life came as a beneficiary of affirmative action.

You would think the response of a man at his level would be, ‘Who cares?’ Instead his self-loathing colors every aspect of his life, including his decision-making on the Supreme Court.

Beyond the elites
In one sense I feel that the current argument for or against affirmative action in higher education is moot and becoming more so each day as the divide between the haves and have-nots grows wider and wider. Because no one wants to talk about the real reasons we still need affirmative action–the ongoing racism and classism that drives our education system.

Debating racial preferences and quotas is sexy—it makes good TV —but plodding through arcane policy to reform the education system is not.

Kids who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action—particularly at elite universities like the University of Michigan —most likely have many higher education choices. Like their non-minority peers, they already know what it takes to get into college and have done the work to get there.

The other children
But what about the children for whom a college education would change their lives? The kids from poor and single family homes. The kids who have raised themselves because their parents are working day and night just to put food on the table. The kids from generations of welfare families where most options lead to dead ends.

What about providing jobs that pay enough so parents can be parents instead of absentee laborers? What about providing an adequate elementary school education so these kids aren’t already lost by the time they reach middle school?

In Los Angeles
, there’s an overwhelming
number of public schools with textbooks dating from the 1970s or no textbooks at all. And classes so crowded that students have to sit on the floor. Who can learn in this environment?

And what about the talented but under-performing kids who just need that extra push or the guidance of experienced eyes to lead them through the maze of family and social issues that make up their lives?

Instead we see over and over again these kids pushed to the side and dumped in ‘alternative’ and GED programs or dropped from school rosters altogether by bureaucrats more concerned about achieving certain statistical graduation rates than educating and graduating actual human beings.

Color-blind society?
Funny that this situation only appears in inner-city schools. Go to a Los Angeles public school in a non-minority area and you’ll see shiny computer labs, new textbooks, and enough teachers to keep class size at a manageable level. How does this happen when school funding is supposedly race-neutral?

These are the questions that foes of affirmative action don’t what to hear or address. Pretending that racism doesn’t play a part in the underachievement of minority students doesn’t solve anything.

George W. Bush has spent billions to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, on aid to rebuild Afghanistan after bombing it to smithereens, and now to fight the advancing AIDS crisis in Africa .

But how about turning an eye Stateside and providing adequate funding for education and social programs, so maybe, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes, in another 25 years racial preferences will no longer be necessary.

And truly no child will be left behind.

 
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The Author : Michelle Gahee
Michelle Gahee writes from Los Angeles.
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