An act of selection

    In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need missile defense systems, welfare or the death penalty. We wouldn’t need prisons or police. And we certainly wouldn’t need affirmative action.

    President John F. Kennedy coined the phrase “”affirmative action”” in the 1960s, and at the time, it meant a number of measures that would encourage integration in federally funded jobs. Forty years and eight presidents later, the term applies to a number of programs aimed at helping minorities, and nowhere is the battle for affirmative action more apparent then the upcoming Supreme Court case against the University of Michigan law school.

    The dispute centers around the university’s admissions system, which is based on awarding points for different factors about the applicant. Although President George W. Bush has reduced the rather complex process to a single comparison of points — listing the values given to SAT scores and race — the fact is that a student’s academic record is by far the most important factor. Out of a total 150 points, academics comprise 110, with grades amounting to 80 points and standardized testing counting for 12. Students can rack up points for the difficulty of their high school curriculum, extracurricular activities, residency in either Michigan or underrepresented states, even for being a male interested in nursing. A student can also win points for race, assuming that they belong to an underrepresented minority.

    And for some people, that’s a problem.

    People balk at the idea of giving precedence to an applicant solely on the basis of race. They make accusations that such treatment is in itself racist, that people shouldn’t be given an advantage just because of their background, and that if we really wanted to be fair, we’d be blind to race entirely. But that’s an over-simplification of an overly complex issue.

    Affirmative action can be defended in two ways, first as a method of creating a diverse environment and second as a method of combating racism.

    In the specific instance of admissions boards considering race as a factor for acceptance, people have to accept the fact that good grades do not necessarily make you a better candidate for college. It isn’t a question of picking the smartest kids who applied; it’s a question of picking who would make the best addition to the campus.

    Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, stated in Newsweek magazine that for “”students to better understand the diverse country and world they inhabit, they must be immersed in a campus culture that allows this to study with, argue with and become friends with students who may be different from them. It broadens the mind, and the intellect — essential goals of education.””

    Universities have an obligation to create an atmosphere that encourages learning; an intrinsically critical part of education is exposure to an assortment of ideas and concepts, theories and beliefs. That cannot be accomplished in a homogenous student body. It is perfectly acceptable for a school to work toward a diverse student body in the effort to create a better learning environment. Diversity is not an added bonus for a top-notch university — it’s an essential part of creating a well-rounded education.

    But there’s a darker issue here than the disparity over utopian campuses. The University of Michigan law school’s acceptance formula has people squirming because it brings up a difficult subject: race.

    Affirmative action was created as a combatant to and reparation for racism. It was meant to ensure that there would be a place for people of all backgrounds in federal job openings, with the understanding that racism had kept minority applicants from getting jobs in the past and at the time. To imply that such measures are no longer necessary because racism isn’t a problem anymore is sheer raving madness.

    Racism is still a huge problem. Sure, Jim Crow laws are gone and lynchings aren’t a major problem. But that just means that racism has taken a new form, and it isn’t as limited to the Deep South as we’d like to think.

    Something must be wrong when 30 percent of white Americans receive college educations while only one-sixth of blacks have a college degree. The debate then becomes whether or not affirmative action is a reasonable method of dealing with the situation.

    The number of minorities attending four-year colleges has risen about 85 percent since the Supreme Court approved affirmative action in admissions in 1978. Conversely, seven years after Proposition 209 passed, banning affirmative action in university admissions, UC Berkeley’s black population has dropped 33 percent from 1996 to 2001, and the student body at the University of California is a measly 3 percent black.

    No one is being admitted solely on the basis of race. People have argued that race has been the deciding factor, but they have yet to assess that race should be omitted entirely. Race cannot be ignored, especially in a process where a group of people is trying to discern someone’s personality.

    It is not the responsibility of the government to guarantee minorities an education. It is not the responsibility of the government to end discrimination. But it most assuredly is the responsibility of the government to ensure that every American be given the right to life, liberty and happiness without reference to race. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. But this situation is far from perfect.

    America has a long-standing history with racism, and the problem won’t go away on its own. It is an injustice to simply assume that the responsibility is entirely on the underprivileged to overcome obstacles when they live in a country that assured them that all were created equal. This isn’t just an issue of how to create an ideal campus, it’s about living up to an ideal upon which this country was founded.

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