The Need For and Justice of Affirmative Action


            The Supreme Court is about to take up the hot-button topic of Affirmative Action in college admissions.  The issue is whether racial preferences are constitutional.


            Overlooking the obvious fact that racial preferences were eminently constitutional when it came to designating slaves for two hundred years, and then another hundred years of depriving colored people and women of rights they were guaranteed under the law, the real issue is whether a society that profited so handsomely from the discrimination against others has any obligation to provide a remedy.


            Are the American blacks alive today handicapped by the discrimination of the past?  The answer is clearly, yes. No one would seriously maintain that the United States is an equal opportunity society. Most of the successful people today are successful because their ancestors were successful. Let’s look at the Bush family.  President George H.W. Bush’s father was a United States Senator, his son was also president of the United States and now another son is a leading contender. Al Gore is the son of a Senator as well. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is the son of Governor Mario Cuomo of New York.  Governor Jerry Brown of California is the son of Governor Pat Brown of California.  This shows that family connections and history count.  Many powerful people today are benefiting from advantages acquired when black people were prohibited from voting, getting an education, living wherever they wanted, and unable to work in certain jobs. The fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States is a miracle, given the obstacles faced by black people in American history.


The Importance of Education


            Being educated is an essential asset in success in life.  If education was unimportant, then it wouldn’t have been illegal to teach slaves to read.  Keeping people down by keeping them ignorant is a centuries old tactic.  As late as 1950, Mississippi spent only $.31 on black students for every dollar it spent on white students. If that’s not a handicap, what is?


            But blacks in the United States, even in Mississippi, were treated far better than natives under the French, British and Belgian colonial regimes. The University at Lovanium in the Congo did not start admitting Africans until 1954, four years after the University of Missouri.  As a result, when the Congo became independent in 1960, there were only twenty-two native graduates in all by the end of the 1959-1960 academic year, the last before independence, when the population was 15,000,000. That means one college graduate for every 1,250,000 people. No wonder the nation could not govern itself and descended into civil war. In the United States in 1960, 7% of the population over the age of 25 had college degrees.  Even in 1940, 2% of the women in the United States were college graduates.  Ho Chi Minh, in his pamphlet, The Case Against French Colonization, complains that there were only twelve high schools for natives in Vietnam compared with fifteen hundred outlets for forced alcohol and opium sales.


            So, education is important and denying people equal education condemns them to an inferior condition of life.


Cultural Bias in College Curricula


            But what about Judge Scalia’s question of whether or not minority students would be better off in less competitive settings because they have to struggle in the elite schools just to keep up?  Naturally, people who have been discriminated against for generations have a harder time competing with people whose ancestors have been college graduates for generations. The answer  to Judge Scalia is that naturally people are better at studying subjects in which they are interested, which usually means subjects that are germane to their lives.


            As mentioned above, there were very, very few native college graduates in Europe’s colonies when they achieved independence more than fifty years ago. But in the intervening half-century that has changed.  There have been two generations where former colonial subjects have gone to school and on to higher education. There are now the children and grandchildren of former colonial subjects who have higher degrees and doctorates, many from universities in the West.  These scholars are doing research and studying subjects that are interesting to them and relevant to their lives.  Not surprisingly, they are interested in studying the history of their ancestors, not English Royalty.


            Even in the United States, there is voluminous research on the realities of slavery.  The Half Has Never Been Told, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist is a good example.  Rich white people are not interested in exposing the hypocrisy of American history or trumpeting the contribution involuntary servitude made to current prosperity.  For that, students and teachers of different backgrounds are required.


The Benefits for the Majority


            Diversity in student body and faculty lead to diversity in curriculum.  Even if the minority students are not as “good” academically as the students with more privileged pedigrees, having a diverse curriculum and perspectives benefits society as a whole.  Ignorance is the major threat to the survival of the United States and the human race. Having a diverse gene pool, skill set and information base is a strength, not a weakness. The disasters of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars were the result of decision-makers with a lot of theories and no facts.


            Facts, that is the essential philosophy for the nuclear and cybernetic age. In a diverse world, as a global power, the United States needs a comprehensive information base to avoid stumbling into destructive military conflicts.  Diverse knowledge and comprehensive perspectives requires research into all areas. The curriculum of western universities are too heavily weighted toward western subjects.  While no one advocates abandoning the roots of western civilization, there are several other civilizations that require investigation also.  And the vast majority of the world’s people are living under non-western civilizations.  Skewing the higher education student body toward a single type of student is a threat to the survival of the United States.  The nation can not afford to stumble into any more military conflicts out of ignorance of foreign cultures and values.


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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf