Is anyone else sick of affirmative action? I know I sure am. Race preferences, diversity – I wish I were done with all of it. Why, you ask? Well, because there appears to be a fundamental refusal to truly understand its purpose. There are legitimate claims against affirmative action. To use an explanation from a friend, “it is a band-aid over a bloody wound.” However, I have been confronted with almost no such claims whenever I hear an argument against the policy. I’ve received responses that were adamantly against affirmative action for what appears to be no good reason to columns I’ve written earlier in the semester. I’ve had people try to convince me that most liberal political philosophy is inherently anti-white and anti-Christian. No, I won’t be convinced.
I’m definitely a student of the 21st century. I basically live online, surfing the Web for everything from the websites of architecture firms to online journalism to works of scholarship and of course facebooking. A few months back, I remember stumbling across the webpage of a professor. I don’t remember who he was or what university employed him – only that he was a black man, probably in his late ’50s, with graying hair, relatively dorky glasses and a decidedly dull suit. He didn’t look especially dignified – no overtly chiseled features, definitely not an athletic build. He didn’t look like much of a scholar; his picture didn’t evoke the same sort of reverence as other pictures of scholars I’ve seen. In comparison to the portraits of past University presidents that hang on the walls of the Michigan Union, his photo just didn’t stack up.
My realization that this professor didn’t look like much of a scholar took a split second. His picture didn’t appear until probably midway through the pages and after reading about his credentials and accomplishments I was surprised that I was reading the webpage of a black man.
I feel bad that this individual did not fit my perception of an accomplished professor. I like to toot my own horn about how I’m an intellectual black man and there are more of us out there than people realize. Yet when I saw that professor’s picture, I instantly decided that he somehow didn’t stack up to what a scholar looked like. I talk a good talk about not using stereotypes, yet I was just as affected as anyone by some deep-seated belief that an old white man is what an intellectual looks like.
The wall on the first floor of the Union, which features the former presidents’ portraits, is a really magnificent thing. It pays homage to the great minds that have led this university. I find myself captivated by the images positioned prominently on a beautifully paneled wall. I’m a bit of a sucker for historical images and warm architecture and I am not ashamed to admit that I’m always up for learning about the history of the University. Thus, I’ve spent my fair share of time just staring at the pictures. Yet whenever I leave, I am always acutely aware that Homer Neal seems to be the oddball of the bunch. I can only imagine the end of University President Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure when the first female makes an appearance on that wall.
In a letter to the Daily on Monday (University’s race preference counterproductive, unfair, 12/05/2005), Prof. Carl Cohen suggests that black students fear of being perceived as intellectually inferior is because of affirmative action. I’ve never met Cohen, but I can’t agree with that implication. That fear of being perceived as intellectually inferior is a result of being watched and followed and subtly questioned my whole life. Those looks of suspicion were directed my way long before I got to college. I’m also certain the practice of questioning black intellect arrived long before the advent of affirmative action. Last summer, I gave a strange look to a black man who actually was a professor because of my own inherent bias. Affirmative action doesn’t produce the fear that a minority’s intellect will be questioned – society at large does.
I was recently persuaded by the position that the best the United States can hope for is to be a true meritocracy, where advancement is based exclusively on individual effort and achievement. When deciding whether affirmative action should be abolished, it is necessary to decide whether the current system is a help or a hindrance toward making society a true meritocracy. It is necessary to decide whether there are societal conditions out of an individual’s control that affect that individual’s ability to navigate society. If the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is on the ballot next November, I’ll vote against it. I’m thoroughly unconvinced that America is a true meritocracy or that affirmative action gives minorities an advantage over whites when it comes to navigating society, and thus I’m in favor of keeping it around.
Betts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.