Affirmative action, self-segregation and reform

By Billy Joe Mills

For hundreds of years, this country tortured its own ideals. This country enslaved, segregated, and punished people of color. The acidic and lingering aftertaste of racism has made necessary efforts to wash it away.

The important question is not whether something should be done, but how it should be done.

Affirmative action has not only failed to bring the socio-economic status of the races to equality, but it has hindered the achievement of a secondary goal: the destruction of racial self-segregation.

Race-based affirmative action carries heavy psychological baggage.

First, when whites in suburban high schools are rejected from our University, their parents call to complain that their kid deserves the spot more than a minority they know nothing about. The effect on minorities is a sense of self-doubt and curiosity whether they were admitted based on their merits.

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Some white students question whether certain minorities deserve to be at the same university as them, simply because of their skin. Affirmative action announces and institutionalizes that there is a distinction between the races.

All of these negative psychological side effects simply increase animosity between the races and reinforce social self-segregation. Let me be clear, these perceptions are mostly based on the ignorance of whites as to the true and noble motivations for affirmative action. But in this game perceptions are law.

If we can create a system that preserves current levels of diversity, while at the same time enrolls minorities by race-blind means, we will cut the strings of psychological baggage.

An alternative solution is economic-based affirmative action.

A type of economic affirmative action is already covertly practiced in Florida, California, Washington, and most notably in Texas. It is commonly called affirmative access.

This plan draws the top 10 percent or so from every high school class and grants them automatic admission to public universities in their home-state. Even in situations where the Ten Percent Plan does not grant admission to a desired level of minorities, the system can be tweaked by considering factors such as the resources available to the student’s school district and the education level of their parents. It guarantees admission to the poorest white rural and black urban students.

Because it is blind and based off of merits, it undercuts the moral and legal arguments of reverse discrimination that come from the far right.

One concern about affirmative access is that minority enrollment will fall. But, at the University of Texas at Austin blacks were 4.1 percent and Latinos were 14.5 percent of the total student body under affirmative action.

Then, in 1996 the 5th Circuit Court ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that public universities must stop using race as an admissions factor. The year after this ruling, black enrollment dropped to 2.7 percent and Latino enrollment slid to 12.6 percent. The Texas legislature then crafted the Ten Percent Plan, or affirmative access. After this plan, black enrollment increased back to its original level of 4.1 percent and Latino enrollment was nearly at its original level with 13.9 percent.

A book written by former Ivy League Presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok, called “The Shape of the River,” exposes that 86 percent of African-American students are middle or upper-middle class at the 28 universities they studied. Affirmative action tends to favor minorities that have already escaped poverty – economic-based admissions would also remedy this.

Polls were conducted in 2003 around the time of Supreme Court cases challenging Michigan’s affirmative action policies. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that 59 percent of Americans supported economic affirmative action, while just 26 percent supported race-based affirmative action. Similarly, a Newsweek poll showed a 65 percent to 26 percent split in favor of economic affirmative action.

It is hard for us to see that affirmative action has failed. The way we measure diversity is by the statistics of how many minorities are enrolled, rather than the more difficult measurement of social integration. Instead of clutching to social policy with a mediocre track record, we need to begin honest and bold reform. Economic affirmative action in the long-run will dilute racial self-segregation on campus and in America.

Billy Joe Mills is a senior in LAS. He would like you to know that he did his own laundry for the first time last weekend. His column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected].