The question of whether or not I support affirmative action is a hard one for me to answer. On one hand, I agree that diversity on a college campus is important in order to facilitate cross-cultural interaction. Hence, I partly support affirmative action because it is a long-term means by which racial problems in this country can be solved. I also feel that minorities deserve some compensation to offset the discrimination that they face throughout their lives. In that regard, I can see how affirmative action can be justified as compensation for the discrimination that minorities and women are still facing.
But the main purpose of affirmative action is not to encourage cross-cultural interaction or to compensate minorities and women for the discrimination they are facing. The main purpose of affirmative action is to help underprivileged minorities make the transition from poverty to a better life. The main purpose of affirmative action is to make up for the lack of opportunities given to minorities as a result of their economic woes. As the argument goes, minorities are not faring as well economically as others as a direct consequence of the strong discrimination and segregation they faced decades ago. Hence, they need the help of affirmative action in order to offset the lack of opportunities they are being given. On the surface, this does seem like a strong and valid argument, one that I used to buy. Then, I came to Ann Arbor and met two people who lived down the corridor in my residence hall. The first was black. The second was white. The black student came from a rich suburb in New York, a good high school and a family with an income exceeding $200,000 a year. The white guy came from Baltimore, grew up in the inner city and went to a high school where few made it to college.
That, in a nutshell, is why I believe affirmative action has lost its purpose. Fifty years ago, the argument that minorities are given fewer opportunities than others as a result of their economic status might have made sense. But a lot has changed since then. Many minorities have moved up in the world and on the economic ladder. It is true that many minority races are still lagging behind the general populace, but the argument that all members of those minority races need help is no longer true. The black student I mentioned earlier came from a family with no financial worries. He grew up in a neighborhood where crime, gangs and drugs were not a major problem. He went to a school with good teachers and classmates who helped, not hurt, him academically. The white person I talked about earlier did not have the same luxuries. One would be very hard-pressed to make an argument that my black friend has been given fewer opportunities than my white friend, and yet, it was the former who had affirmative action help him get into his school of choice, while the latter still considers himself lucky for getting into the University.
The sands of time are passing, and what might once have been true is no longer so. The main purpose of affirmative action is, and should be, to help those who have not been given adequate opportunities to excel and succeed by themselves. In today’s world, whether or not one receives these opportunities has very little to do with the color of his skin and everything to do with his socioeconomic status. I am not disputing the statistics that show that minorities occupy a much larger share of the lower rungs of society. What I am pointing out is that there are tens of thousands of exceptions to the norm. There are numerous minorities who have done very well for themselves and, as a result, have been able to provide their children the opportunities they need to succeed in life and give them a level playing field or even one that is tilted in their favor. There are also numerous whites, who are living in poverty in inner cities, whose children are almost certainly doomed to remain in the poverty cycle as a result of their circumstances and the lack of opportunities they are being given to succeed. There are numerous families that don’t fit the stereotype on both sides of the fence, and this number is growing every day. If the main goal of affirmative action is to help those who have not been given adequate opportunities to succeed, as it should be, then it would make a lot more sense for the bulk of affirmative action to be based on socioeconomic factors rather than race.
I am not writing this viewpoint in support of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. MCRI aims to abolish affirmative action without replacing it. Doing so would only make the University less diverse and more elitist than it already is. What I’m suggesting is for affirmative action to be changed. Minorities should receive some slight preferential treatment in order to improve diversity on campus and as compensation for the discrimination they will be facing throughout their lives. But the bulk of affirmative action should be based on the applicant’s socioeconomic status. This would level the playing field and help all students, not just minorities, who have not been given adequate opportunities to succeed.
Prabhakar is an Engineering freshman and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.