An anecdote would work well here – perhaps a scandalous tidbit about some poor white sap I know who got screwed by affirmative action. But I don’t have one. Which might surprise some of you, since just about everyone seems to know someone who lost their place at some school to some black dude from Detroit.

In fact, if Jennifer Gratz had an admissions point for every time I’ve heard this story, she’d have been accepted to the University several thousand times by now.

Herein lies my problem with affirmative action’s opponents. They don’t seem to fully appreciate the depth of this country’s race problems. And by arguing about the (exaggerated) extent to which whites are harmed by affirmative action policies, they obscure years of racism – both of the institutionalized and subtle nature – that has disadvantaged scores of American minorities. If dark-skinned Americans are not handicapped by economic inequalities, they still encounter discrimination from potential employers, shopkeepers, renters.

We have done very little to ameliorate this situation. In fact, we have often done just the opposite. There are the obvious examples -slavery and Jim Crow. But even after those years were long past, whites actively resisted integration efforts wherever possible.

In the 1970s, for example, suburban whites threw a hissy-fit when judges tried to bus black children into their neighborhoods. And Atlanta only integrated its public schools 32 years ago. Opponents of integration measures may have calmed down nowadays, but they’re still just as adamant, if more civil.

Three decades of school integration does not hundreds of years of resistance erase and we should stop pretending that it has. Segregation, woefully-underfunded inner-city schools and racial prejudice still characterize minority lives in this country, and they will continue to do so until we address them.

In the meantime, we need to create opportunities where there are none. Affirmative action does exactly that. It allows minorities who have attended inadequate primary and secondary schools to get into and benefit from schools like the University. Most of all, it gives people who face discrimination because of their skin color an opportunity to take advantage of the resources the rest us too often assume we have earned the exclusive right to use.

What especially puzzles me about the affirmative action debate is the extent to which whites appear to be ignoring minority voices/opinions. From the Bush administration to this campus, minorities overwhelmingly support affirmative action, yet most whites don’t. You’d think minorities’ opinions on affirmative action would hold a bit more weight. (You’d be wrong, though.)

So, what exactly are we thinking? Are minorities just a bunch of freeloaders intent on securing free passes to college? Or do they, perhaps, happen to have an insider’s view of what it’s like to be dark-skinned in this country? I’d say the last one, but I’m just guessing.

Why do we continue to articulate this debate in individual terms when it’s about addressing a problem for which we are all collectively culpable? Of course I never enslaved anyone, never moved an entire factory away from a center city to the suburbs. Most whites have not individually decimated the tax bases of minority communities.

But, because of my white skin, I have benefitted from the structures that years of racism have wrought. And more significantly, dark-skinned Americans have been disadvantaged by the exact same forces that have provided me these benefits.

We should be addressing the disparities, especially in primary and secondary education and by attacking the segregation that breeds them. But just because these solutions cast a wider net does not mean that we should abandon affirmative action.

When blacks continue to receive the poorest education and the lowest pay. When racism continues to haunt our private selves, and when we continue to live in a society so segregated that white children can go years without coming into contact with black children, it is absolutely imperative that we find ways to give minorities the same opportunities as whites. Doing so requires that we sacrifice collectively.

Honkala can be reached at jhonkala@umich.edu.

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