Should Sen. Obama’s rise mean the fall of affirmative action?

Madison McBride, 9, waits at Civic Center Park before Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks on Sunday in Denver. Questions arise about affirmative action as the election continues to remain close. Preston Gannaway, Rocky Mountain News, The Associated Press


Madison McBride, 9, waits at Civic Center Park before Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks on Sunday in Denver. Questions arise about affirmative action as the election continues to remain close. Preston Gannaway, Rocky Mountain News, The Associated Press

By Terrell Starr

Jontia Pegues recalls being overwhelmed with pride as she watched Sen. Barack Obama’s televised acceptance speech of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

It was on the 44th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech” which made the night particularly emotional for the black 21-year-old.

“It was almost like the dream was almost into fruition,” said Pegues, junior in LAS.

But for her, almost is the operative word.

Peguesdoes not believe Obama’s political rise means that affirmative action should end, though she expressed concern that some minorities may use it as an excuse to not put forth the extra effort needed to be successful.

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    “Affirmative action is still needed because there are still a lot of problems that need to be addressed,” she said. “However, us as a people should not use that as a crutch to get where we want to go.”

    The University is an affirmative action institution, meaning it can consider race and gender when admitting students and hiring faculty and staff. Critics of the policy consider it a quota system that gives preference to people based solely on gender and race. But others see it only as a tool that requires government entities, including universities, to take race, gender and other factors into consideration in hiring and the admitting students.

    Sarah Troutman, junior in LAS, is a critic. She said she learned about affirmative action in a class recently and thinks its a quota system. She added that she is concerned about the University’s current efforts to diversify the campus.

    “I’ve noticed that they’re trying to admit more Latino students and more African-American students which is fine,” Troutman said. “But if you’re just solely focusing on trying to diversify a student population just for the sake of having more minorities, to me that just doesn’t seem right. If you’re really qualified to be at this institution then that’s why you should come.”

    James Anderson, University professor in educational policy and an affirmative action scholar, said the perception that unqualified minority students are at the University solely because of affirmative action is not true. Anderson testified on behalf of the University of Michigan while the school was dealing with its affirmative action lawsuit in 2003.

    “When someone says to (minority students) that they are here because of affirmative action, they are perpetuating the stereotype, not the reality,” Anderson said. “(Minority students) look very much like the rest of the student body.”

    For now, there are no serious campaigns to challenge affirmative action programs in the state of Illinois. But nationally, conflicting views have led to the policy being challenged. California, Washington and Michigan, for example, were battleground states where affirmative action policies were successfully voted out of law through grassroots ballot initiatives.

    University President B. Joseph White believes America has progressed significantly from the racially charged 1960s where the policy was born. But, he said that racism still lingers in society, making it a relevant issue now.

    “Some people like to believe that America’s a level playing field, and we should just play out the merit system on the level playing field, White said. “Well that’s naive. We’re not a level playing field.”

    White was interim president at the University of Michigan when its undergraduate and law school admissions policies were challenged through lawsuits by white applicants claiming they were denied admissions because of race. Both cases attracted national media attention and eventually made it all the way to Supreme Court.

    In 2003, the Court ruled in favor of the law school but ruled against Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, forcing the school to change it.

    University students had varying views regarding affirmative action. Some were familiar with it, and others were not.

    “What’s that?” was the response some students gave when asked about the subject.

    But many were able to provide some commentary.

    University alum Zach Puthoff, said he does not feel affirmative action is needed at all. Obama, Puthoff said, is where he is, not because of affirmative action, but because of his talents and abilities.

    He is against the policy “on principle” and believes that institutions that use affirmative action do not benefit from it.

    “It highlights the fact that people are of a different race and it gives them an advantage because of that rather than just saying ‘lets just ignore everyone’s race and take them on their own abilities and their own intelligence,'” he said.

    Student Trustee Paul Schmitt, senior in LAS, said he is not against affirmative action but feels Obama’s political rise proves the policy may need to be given a second look.

    “It needs to be adapted from how it was in the 1960s to address the issues of today,” Schmitt said.

    Some states are taking Schmitt’s view a step further by trying to end affirmative action altogether.

    This November, Nebraska and Colorado will vote for or against policies which consider race or gender in hiring, contracting and college admissions. Obama has gone on the record saying he opposes the initiatives.

    But Nathan Bowers, sophomore in LAS, said he would like for similar initiatives to reach Illinois. He said affirmative action is “inverse racism” and sees Obama as the epitome of why the policy is no longer needed.

    “Obviously he’s not needing any help,” Bowers said. “He seems to be ahead in the polls pretty much everywhere. I mean, you have the classic incumbent: the big white Republican who’s losing pretty badly right now. So it doesn’t seem necessary.”

    White said he is “sympathetic” to those who oppose affirmative action but added that the policy is still needed, citing low college attendance rates of African-American and Latino students.

    “It’s a pretty big jump,” White said, “to go from Barack Obama’s candidacy to the conclusion that this is hard evidence that affirmative action is no longer needed.”

    However, he said that the policy needs to evolve because “American society is evolving.” It should expand to consider class and economic backgrounds regardless of race, White said. And eventually, it should have an expiration date.

    “If affirmative action and the American Civil Rights Movement are successful, the day will come (when) we don’t need affirmative action,” White said.

    But Pegues does not think that day is now. Affirmative action is still necessary, but she said minority students should not solely depend on it to be successful.