An interesting e-mail was circulated among Asian groups on campus last week. It complained bitterly that Asian students were hanging out with other Asians too much and hurting their opportunities for integration. The author(s) of the missive, discrediting their plea before it was ever sent, decided to remain anonymous.

Paul Wong
One for the road<br><br>Peter Cunnife

Also last week, was the umpteenth campus visit of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the unfortunate behest of the race baiting, deluded members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary. Besides the appreciative supporters, Jackson was met by upset protesters, whose personal attacks on Jackson”s family life certainly helped make their anti-affirmative action message much more compelling. Or not.

Just two events from last week, but they are indicative of things that go on constantly here tensions involving issues of race that continue to bedevil the society. I, and probably most people, were taught that we shouldn”t care about race growing up. We heard all about the civil rights struggles of our parents” generation, learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and were told that such struggles had allowed us to banish the ugliness of our discriminatory past. But, of course, we”ve all learned by now that you just tell that to children, at least the children where I grew up, where I could count the black kids in my school on one hand.

Americans like to think of themselves as tolerant people who judge others based on the content of their characters, not the color of their skin. But who is nave enough to really believe that is true? Ask a black person pulled over for driving through a white neighborhood. Or an Arab or other unsuitably dark individual, pulled off an airplane to calm the jittery white folk.

Racial separation isn”t just for law enforcement though. People often seek to socialize specifically with people of the same race, especially in places like colleges. Many students, including some minorities, ask why, if integration is the goal, do minority students band together in student groups with those of similar hue and as the old clich goes, sit at their own table in the cafeteria? Unfortunately race has a way of dividing even where the intention (as it is for the University) is to unify. Many minority students have friends of mostly the same race because it is often more difficult, from both ends, to relate to students of different races. In our segregated society, where most people grow up with people of mostly the same race, how can we be surprised when racial differences keep people apart here? I have problems with many minority student groups (basically their tendency to overplay the real, though not as bad as they say, discrimination against them and further alienate their members from other students) but I certainly understand why they exist.

Race is part of who you are. It often affects how you live, how others view you and what opportunities you have. People join race-centered groups because society foists similar experiences and challenges upon them.

It”s the habit of many to complain about “reverse discrimination” when they see such groups or look at policies to promote diversity, such as the University”s race sensitive admissions process. Affirmative action is an ethically torturous issue for many, including myself, because allowing someone”s race to alter their chances of admission is at odds with all those ideals of treating everyone equally we were taught growing up. But the reason that affirmative action is ultimately the right policy is because it reflects the inescapable reality that race matters.

Many suffer under the misguided notion that the point of the college admissions process is to find the people with the best high school grades. If it was so simple, why have any process at all? College admissions is about putting together the best class, not rewarding individuals with good SAT scores. And part of a good class is diversity. Diversity in socio-economic background, geographic diversity, diversity of experiences and interests and many other factors. Including race in this calculation is important because those of different races do have different experiences that we need to be exposed to truly improve our understanding of the world around us and also because we live in a diverse society that is getting more diverse all the time. We won”t be well prepared for it unless we are educated in a diverse environment. Grades and test scores are still the biggest factors in the admissions process and no one gets in that isn”t expected to succeed academically, but building the best class from all the qualified applicants means using a broad range of other factors to bring together people with different experiences and views.

Discrimination would be keeping out people of races you don”t like. Trying to promote diversity in general to provide a better education for everyone cannot be equated with that.

Conservatives often like to say we need to ensure diversity in viewpoints, not race. But race most definitely affects how you view the world and how it views you. And I”ve noticed quite diverse views around here in any case.

As sad as it is, race plays a huge role in our lives. It would be wonderful if race didn”t so drastically separate people that we need measures like affirmative action to bring them together. But it does.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached via e-mail at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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