A few days ago, we were discussing the modern Civil Rights Movement in the five-week summer session course that I am teaching. This particular class period was very lively and engaging. I provided specific examples and highlights of the era. Almost every student (many who were born in the mid-1990s) was captivated by the monumental events that dominated our nation during this particular time. The topic was even more significant in that it could have not have come at a more opportune time, given the groundbreaking rulings that were rendered by the Supreme Court on voting rights and gay marriage and other related cases during the last week of June.
During the latter half of the class period, one student raised his hand and asked me what I thought about affirmative action. To be more specific, he asked me “do you support affirmative action?” The rest of the conversation went as follows:
Professor: Yes, I do support affirmative action. It is one of the primary reasons I am sitting in this classroom teaching you and your peers.
Student: Well, I don’t think affirmative action is fair. Things should be based on merit.
Professor: How do you define merit?
Student: Merit means that hard work and talent should be given preference over race.
Professor: I agree that hard work and talent should be rewarded. However, the reality is that has not always been the case and that the notion of meritocracy has largely been a myth and is somewhat disingenuous.
Student: What do you mean?
Professor: What many people (especially those who identify as conservatives) tout as merit is often people who look like them, share the same economic background, belong to the same clubs, etc. In short, familiarity and comfort take precedent over other factors.
It was at this point that the student in question pauses, slightly nods his head and then continues.
Student: When I was in the military, I saw minorities get preferential treatment regardless of whether they were qualified or not.
Professor: While I am not familiar with the specifics of your claim, I am certain that the same could be said of a number of Whites in the military, as well.
Several students in the class either smirk or chuckle.
Student: I guess I would like to know why you feel affirmative action is so important
Professor: Because we live in a society where not everyone is wealthy, well-connected, or has access to power, privilege and connections.
Student: I mean, look at Abigail Fisher. She was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas because she was a White female.
Professor: It is interesting that you mention Abigail Fisher. The fact is that there were White students with scores that were lower than hers who were granted enrollment to the University of Texas at Austin. Moreover, her SAT scores were mediocre compared to the median for most students who were admitted.
Professor: Yes. Moreover, it interesting that you mention that she was a White female. The fact is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action are White women.
Student: (Subtle eye roll)
Professor: Moreover, there have been many studies past and more recent that demonstrate that racial discrimination is still very much commonplace in hiring. Just a few years ago, University of Chicago economists conducted a study where they sent out fictional identical resumes with Black-sounding names, Hispanic-sounding names and White-sounding names to Fortune 500 companies. The resumes with White-sounding names were 5 to 10 times more likely to get a call back than those with Black-sounding names and 3 to 7 times more likely than those with Hispanic-sounding names.
Professor: Yes. I will be more than happy to direct you to the study.
I also told him that I would be more than happy to discuss the issue with him further after class. I then returned to discussing the remaining events of the Civil Rights Movement. He, the student in question, did not stay after class for further discussion.
The reason I bring this exchange up is due to the fact that the young man in question was in his late 20s. He is a member of the generation that is supposed to be more progressive on racial, gender and other related social issues. Granted, he was only one person, but such an exchange demonstrated to me that there a number of millennial (Generation Y) adults whose attitudes on social issues mirror those of their elders. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After class that day, I went to my office, logged onto the Internet and was bombarded with articles about racial conflict, most notably stories involving Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin. I read a few blog entries written by various bloggers about both topics and perused through various discussion forums. Such accusatory, finger-pointing, largely mean-spirited, polarizing responses from a number of posters about both topics reconfirmed to me that, while we are a nation that has come a long way on race, we still have a long way to go.