WASHINGTON — The dueling protesters stood next to each other on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was one guy versus 600 — but Sarah wanted him to go.
“Come on, why don’t you just leave?” she asked, clutching an “Equality for All” sign in her hand — one of hundreds in the crowd.
“What, free speech is only for you guys?” the man replied. He held a sign too. But unlike Sarah, his sign read a little different than everyone else’s: “Affirmative action is discrimination.” And unlike Sarah, he was alone.
Sarah turned away from her group and stared at the guy point-blank. “Don’t you get it?” she said. “Why do you think you don’t have a group with you today? Why do you think you’re alone?”
And there it was — the admission. The admission of the rally’s mentality, this collective understanding that if you weren’t with us, you were against us. And boy, were you wrong.
As the crowd grew outside of the court’s arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, the case that may end affirmative action outright, it became increasingly clear that there was simply no room for doubt. The speakers got louder. The crowd became more intense. But while the chants of “Diversity works!” flooded the intersection of First Street and Maryland Avenue, you still have to wonder: is the question “Does diversity work?” what we really should be asking? Or are we missing the point?
Like 21 percent of Americans, according to a Rasmussen poll, I found myself uncomfortably divided on affirmative action. On one hand, I wanted diversity — and not just because college admissions essays made me write about it until my fingers fell off. After four years of the same people in the same school in the same town, I wanted to meet people that were just a little different than the average white guy in Royal Oak, Mich. And the University seemed to care about that.
But on the other hand, I wasn’t sure if giving preference to some people over others was the best way to ensure a heterogeneous campus. Fifty-five percent of Americans oppose affirmative action according to the same poll. Something about giving some preference to applicants — whether it was for their race, alumni connections, gender, what have you — well, it felt incomplete. Arbitrary, even — I mean, how do you decide how many theoretic points you get for playing the cello versus being born in Hamtramck? At its most basic, theoretic center, it’s a complicated pursuit. But it seemed like we could do better.
And yet, at the rally, the discussion never went there. Dozens of speakers made their way to the podium, singing the praises of diversity. And it is absolutely worthy of praise. The Supreme Court knows it, calling diversity a “compelling interest” for schools. University administrators know it, devoting offices to oversee its maintenance. Whether diversity is important is not the question. But somehow questioning the efficacy of affirmative action, a policy that hasn’t uniformly helped low-income students, is equated with holding an anti-diversity agenda.
And it’s not just an anti-diversity agenda. When speakers approached the subject of “the other” — those who weren’t in full support of affirmative action — the rhetoric often turned red. Backward, Bible-beltian red, in fact. “There are some that say that affirmative action is a form of reverse discrimination,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “But you know what those people support? Voter ID laws. Stop and frisk. The idea that only the ‘47 percent’ can move up.”
Well, not necessarily. If the three separate cases the court has reviewed are any indication, affirmative action isn’t exactly the easiest issue to tackle. A question that requires such a comprehensive understanding of historical and philosophical equality warrants more thought than just guessing what Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would think and sticking with that. For once, this isn’t an issue of red state v. blue state. So why do we have to try to make it one?
Ensuring diversity in education is an issue that is — and should be — supported, regardless of political ideology. Doubting the means currently used to reach this diversity, however, is not the same as questioning the aims. Our current method, namely, affirmative action, is just a band-aid. Getting underprivileged students into college — yes, it’s important. But it’s not just about getting them there.
It’s about making sure they come back for a second year. It’s about ensuring they make the grade. It’s about going back to elementary schools and making sure kids learn the multiplication table before they leave. If we’re trying to get at the root of resolving educational disparities once and for all, we’ve got to stop just chopping away at the branches. All we’re left with is a pile of sticks, an embarrassingly obvious metaphor and a perpetually broken system.
When the Court announces its decision in the spring, the court is likely to rule in favor of Ms. Fisher, meaning a restructuring or even the destruction of affirmative action programs. But this doesn’t necessitate the death of diversity. Affirmative action is just one possible solution, one that has divided the country for reasons beyond politics-as-usual. It’s time to consider alternatives. It won’t be a jurisprudential cakewalk (much to Justice Antonin Scalia’s disappointment). But hell, affirmative action hasn’t been either. And unlike the Grutter decision, maybe this time it won’t come with a 25-year sell-by date.
Melanie Kruvelis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.