With all the hype about MLK's birthday on Monday, there has been a lot of talk about race recently, and the conversation here in Michigan is probably more interesting than most. In November, Michigan voters repealed the Affirmative Action amendment to our state constitution, sparking huge debate over what really constitutes fair and equal. For those that are unfamiliar with Affirmative Action, it basically states that governmental institutions are required to hire or accept minorities in certain percentages thought to be representative of their population.
The proponent of the Affirmative Action appeal (and please forgive me, I've heard him in an interview as recent as earlier this week, but I can't remember his name) is a lawyer who represented a white female who was refused admittance in University of Michigan while minorities with lower grades and test scores were accepted due to Affirmative Action. It was not a question of scores 50 or 60 points lower...the scores were hundreds of points lower. Hundreds. Not only were their scores hundreds of points lower, but U of M actually had a completely separate application process for minorities. Instead of being presumptively handled as "assumed rejection" as all other applicants were, they were handled as "assumed acceptance." This meant that while non-minorities had to build a case for acceptance at U of M, minorities had to merely exhibit a pulse and proof of their minority status. Well, that is the way he made it sound, anyway.
To make matters even more insulting, he used Martin Luther King's own words to defend his stand against Affirmative Action, saying that because MLK dreamed of a time when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, he would applaud the repeal of Affirmative Action as a step in the right direction of minorities being judged according to their accomplishments and not by the color of their skin. To me, that appears to be a deliberate distortion of MLK's intent: he meant that his people were being detrimentally judged by the color of their skin. Duh.
Now, even with Affirmative Action, the number of minorities attending such colleges as University of Michigan did not match the percentage of minorities in the population at large. So, even with Affirmative Action, there were simply not enough minorities applying to colleges. That, to me, is the crux of the issue. Affirmative Action applied to the college enrollment process made the correct assumption that standardized tests are racially homogenic - that is, the way the tests are administered, worded and graded favor the predominant cultural characteristics of white people. This happens to be true. How do I know? My children went to school with black kids, and my brother and I both taught black kids in Sunday school at church. Their culture is very different from ours, and the way the black children are taught to view the world and the way they interpret the world around them is considerably different from that of a white child.
By making that statement, I do not mean to say that they are less intelligent or less capable of learning the material. But what I am saying is that we teach and preach and write textbooks and devise learning strategies around certain cultural assumptions. For instance, we assume that the students will understand the highly anglo-saxon language. Well, guess what? Black people don't talk like white people with the consequence that many times, teacher lectures go right over the heads of their black students.
Another assumption related to the education of our students is that they will sit quietly and pay attention while the teacher goes through a lesson. In my experience, both in Sunday school and observing the classes my children attended at public school, this is something that is very difficult for the black children to do, probably because the lesson doesn't appear to relate to them when it is delivered in such a whitey-white way.
Given the cultural assumptions that go into creating a school atmosphere and curriculumn, it is not surprising that many blacks feel educationally disenfranchised in our public education systems and consequently, test lower than white kids. Does that mean that Affirmative Action was working? I really don't know. But I do know that black kids deserve an education as much as white kids do, and the lower academic standards applied to black college applicants to some degree offset the extreme cultural biases in our educational system. But is it fair? Well....probably not. The concept behind Affirmative Action is noble, but the application is flawed. But clearly there is a problem to be addressed, and eliminating Affirmative Action does not make the problem go away for the black population in Michigan. The conundrum it leaves us is that black people either need to conform to the anglo-saxon culture to get ahead (which is obviously not right nor likely to happen) or end up disenfranchised educationally and economically. At least, that is the way it appears to me.
If I were a minority, I can tell you right now I would be making a beeline for another state. It used to be Michiganders kept their racism carefully concealed under a sheen of acceptance and "Some of my best friends are black" declarations. Now, we appear to be saying, "Hey, you ARE black! I didn't notice before, but now that I do, it's back to old Jim Crow!"