Of A Split Mind: Thoughts on Affirmative Action

by Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

I’ve been reading and reading and reading about Barack Obama and his views on affirmative action.

First came this Washington Post Op-Ed analyzing Obama’s comments on ABC’s “This Week.”

Eugene Robinson, the author of the piece, compares Obama’s statements:

Obama has repeatedly gone on record as a supporter of affirmative action. But “if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it,” he said in the ABC interview, “affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.”

He seemed to side with those who think class predominates when he said, “I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

Robinson ends by discussing other issues in college education – like legacy admissions – and notes his own views on race and class.

After reading the Op-Ed, I came across another interesting post. Written by dnA of the Too Sense blog, he address the original issue in this post, and then revisits the topic in yesterday’s post.

dnA summarizes his views by stating:

Obama seems to be suggesting that AA is needed only for those people for whom “race and class still intersect.” That black middle class folks who are the first generation in college need AA, “as opposed to fifth or sixth generation college attendees.”

Empirical research bears out that race still matters in hiring practices, regardless of class, which means that black folks of all classes need Affirmative Action, not just those who are poor and are first generation college attendees.

Saying otherwise is suggesting a significant change in Affirmative Action as we understand it.

Obama is obviously between a rock and a hard place on that one. There is no right answer – at least, not one that will please a large group of people.

I wish I could supply an answer, but I cannot. On one hand, I understand Obama’s sentiments – most of the obstacles I have had in life have resulted from being poor, not being black. The boost I received from programs rooted in affirmative action were predominantly to overcome financial barriers. I remember sitting in my AP classes, listening to my friends discuss SAT prep programs like Kaplan, expecting their parents to cough up the $700 (it was much more expensive in 1999) it would take to increase their SAT scores by 200 points.

I remember being silent during those discussions, knowing that in my household a free $20 was hard to come by. I earned all my own money in those days, and $700 might as well have been seven million. Paying the reduced fees on my AP tests broke my pockets enough, along with all of the extra expenses involved in being an extra-curricular superstar and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Thank goodness for my pre-college programs. They gave us PSATs and SAT prep every year, paid for up to five college applications, and allowed us access to internships, interviewing skills, and summer school and job opportunities that my friends took for granted.

Still, I understand Obama’s position. Broke is broke. Poor white kids are at just as much of a disadvantage as poor black kids, right?

dnA thinks not. In his argument, he points to institutionalized racism trends that have been verified through research: a bias against blacks in hiring and promotions, based on variables as simple as a name. I am reminded of a statement made by former editor of the Source, Carlito, expressed in a late 1990s Editor’s Letter. In the letter, he basically ranted about things that made him angry or disgusted about our society, throwing in the item “knowing that Billy and Heather will always have a chance.” By dint of birth, the white majority always seems to win the set, no matter how they started the game.

Affirmative action is necessary to correct a cultural disadvantage – yet it is so tainted with skewed perceptions and double meanings that it almost hurts to claim the benefits.

I hear the voices of one of my Asian friends from high school, whispering that she heard Asian students were being rejected from the University of Maryland because they had already met their affirmative action quotas. I hear that former white friend of mine, whispering that another friend’s admission to Princeton was based on Affirmative Action, and knowing that her liberal mind truly believed that was the case. I hear a former boss of mine – whom I thank for unabashedly sharing an older white male view of the world – telling me that I shouldn’t go to a black college because “employers will think you couldn’t cut it at a real school.”

Affirmative action was intended to right a wrong…yet sometimes, I can’t help but feel like accepting the benefits it provides perpetuates a stereotypical view that African-Americans (and other minorities) cannot advance under their own devices. It is almost as if affirmative action is a new colonization tactic, where we are expected to be grateful, and in awe of this wonderful gift of equality we are receiving. We are supposed to be grateful for this gift, and never ever question anything else – after all, aren’t we receiving affirmative action now? Everything is supposedly equal. Why are black people (and I use black people in lieu of minorities for a reason) still complaining? Affirmative action has been in place twenty years now – shouldn’t you have caught up by now?

The alternative-establishment, unschool supporting, hip-rocker in me wants to rebel. It is obvious to me that this gift is tainted, and tainted gifts are ones I do not want to accept. Strings of obedience were used to tie the bow, and I will be damned if I have to spend the rest of my life kow-towing to someone else’s warped sense of superiority. It irks me to no end to see people take in my brown face, and automatically assume that it was not my merit that got me to where I am, but a social program.

That being said, a small part of me still worries. As much as I want to cast off this oppressive yoke of obligation, I wonder about the kids who are growing up in my circumstances. If Affirmative Action were eliminated, would they be able to receive those same benefits? Would a young black girl be able to dream about a life of entrepreneurship if her entire world was limited to people who are unable to conceive of such a thing? Would I have learned to accept my unmistakably black name, if it were not for minority-based programs that instilled in me that working and living into mainstream America did not mean hiding one’s ethnic identifiers? After all, you could just as easily be reading a post from L. Denise Peterson. Or the genderless identity L.D. Peterson. Would I have been able to hone my skills discussing race and society if I was not in a predominantly black pre-college program?

I still have no answers, and it appears I have run out of items to read.

I don’t know what to answer, or what to think.

What I do know is that affirmative action would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t for the lasting bitter aftertaste.