During my freshman year, I conducted a 10-question survey to learn about the transition to college for the average University freshman. I learned about the varied academic experiences of new college students — those who felt well prepared by their high schools and those who didn’t. I learned about the social, sexual and intellectual insecurities and overconfidence of new college students. But until I posed my final question — which asked students to summarize their transition to college in one phrase — to the last student I surveyed, I had been entirely ignorant to one of the most crucial transitional experiences occurring among my peer group. My hallmate answered, “I became aware of my blackness.”
I don’t think she meant that coming to college made her suddenly aware of some inherent quality of “blackness” she possesses. Because race, in a biological sense, doesn’t exist. But to suggest — like many of those arguing against the Michigan affirmative action policies up for judicial debate next March — that the non-existence of biological race delegitimizes a response to race-based inequality is to ignore the very real impact of imagined social divisions.
My hallmate matriculated to the University from a Detroit public high school in which she was among the vast racial majority. At the University, she suddenly found herself — her cultural background and her worldview — on the margins of the dominantly white University community. She didn’t go on to make statements about how this marginal status prevented her from achieving her academic or social pursuits — though, perhaps, she could have. She simply articulated what it felt like to be — all of a sudden — different.
In order to engage in a potentially productive discourse on race-conscious affirmative action, the social significance of race must be commonly understood. Racialized groups — that is, groups who have been privileged or disadvantaged on the basis of imagined intrinsic character traits — are still in measurably different social positions. According to a National Center for Education Statistics 2007 study, the average black college graduate makes $15,000 less than the average white college graduate. And, according to the 2010 Census, the poverty rate among black Americans is double that of white Americans. Without going into the statistical details, this inequality is pervasive in school performance, job hiring and even life expectancy. The civil rights movement of the 1960s did not effectively end racial discrimination and inequality.
In discussing the constitutionality of affirmative action policies for my law and philosophy course, several students argued that such policies should be color-blind but give weight to the socioeconomic status of an applicant. They considered income to be the only relevant factor that seriously privileges or disadvantages people. Our professor reinforced that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of race-conscious affirmative action policies because it saw a compelling state interest in promoting diversity and equality in every facet of society — not because justices felt compelled to help out a historically disadvantaged group. To illustrate the Supreme Court’s point, my professor told us that our discussion section was her first — in 20-plus years leading discussions — without a single black student. She asked us what we thought our discussion lacked that all past discussions didn’t.
Our nation’s policy makers are interested in pursuing a just society. They recognize that, in order to live in a society in which varied interests are honored, we must promote diversity in the most powerful social and political echelons. Many claim that affirmative action admissions policies only perpetuate racial stereotypes and divisions — some even claim “reverse racism.” They parallel the rejection of white students from universities because of their skin color to the rejection of qualified black students from universities during the time of segregation. But that argument overlooks intention behind each case of rejection: One sought to prevent equality on the basis of prejudice while the other seeks to promote equality in the interest of the public good.
Policies that seek to promote diversity and equality at the university level may disappoint the self-interested expectations of white citizens who believe their qualifications will guarantee them a spot at a university. But disappointment doesn’t constitute injustice. We ought to fight for the responsibility of the government to equally protect all of its citizens. And those who believe that the system — as it stands without affirmative action — is just and equal are simply wrong.
Libby Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.