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Race relations issues overshadowed by furor over affirmative action

When you discuss race relations in higher education, the issues of
diversity and affirmative action inevitably become a part of the
dialogue. Unfortunately, those two topics often get confused as the
same issue.

At the recent airing of “Race Relations in Higher Education — A
Prescription for Empowerment and Progress,” a videoconference presented
live via satellite by Black Issues in Higher Education, panelists
agreed with that assessment. However, according to moderator Kojo
Nnamdi, they were more intent on getting past the language and rhetoric
and focusing on what can be done to ensure that America’s institutions
of higher education remain accessible to all.

Panelists included: attorney Christopher Edley Jr., professor of
law at Harvard University and a senior advisor to President Bill
Clinton on Racial Issues; attorney Sumi Cho, professor of law at DePaul
University; Dr. Juan Francisco Lara, assistant vice chancellor of the
University of California-Irvine; Dr. Katya Gibel Azoulay, assistant
professor of Anthropology and chair of the Africana Studies department
at Grinnell College; Dr. Stanley Fish, professor of English at Duke
University; and Dr. Raymond A. Winbush, Benjamin Hooks professor of
Social justice at Fisk University.

Race relations in higher education is currently one of the nation’s
major concerns. This point was stressed when Nnamdi noted that “as we
speak,” those very issues were being discussed by President Bill
Clinton and his advisory committee on race at the University of

One reason the discussion has become complicated is because the
issues of diversity, proposition 209, and affirmative action have all
been lumped together, members of the panel said.

“When we look at race in America, it has been framed in terms of
the … guilt that White Americans feel over what happened to African
Americans,” said Lara. “[That is] much different, it seems to me, than
the issue of immigration.”

Additionally, Duke’s Fish pointed out that the terms “affirmative
action” and “diversity” have been defined by the opposition and given
negative connotations.

DePaul’s Cho agreed and said, “I think we’ve got to begin thinking
about what strategies long term we can begin to develope to contest the

Edley reminded the audience that diversity is not intended to
remedy past racial injustice. Instead, it is advocated for the good of
our institutions.

“By being inclusive, we create an excellent institution. The group
of folk you assemble on a campus or in a classroom bring to that
discussion all the richness of America’s many varied experiences,”
Edley said.

“And moreover,” he continued, “someone being trained to go to work
in America of the twenty-first century who hasn’t learned to deal with
difference effectively simply is ill prepared to be a leader in any
substantial community.”

Winbush, who thinks the problem should be labeled “racism,” said,
“There is a group of people who want to dismantle affirmative action
regardless of how noble we are as academics. I tell my students at Fisk
University that the era of affirmative action is all but over. And
that’s not being pessimistic, it’s being realistic.

“We tried the noble approach ten years ago when progressive
scholars around the country said we need to have diversity because it’s
the right thing to do,” he continued. “But now we have Rush Limbaugh
lecturing [and] telling the American people the exact opposite.”

Although Edley considers himself a realist, he is worried that affirmative action will be declared dead before its time.

“It’s still good law in forty-seven states and most institutions want to find ways of holding on to it,” he said.

In Fish’s analysis, the political right altered the linguistics of
the political left. Terms such as “equal opportunity” now mean that,
according to Fish, “the right of any of us to do anything he or she
wants is to be treasured above any outcome however, socially valued.
And that argument has made its way into environmental law, affirmative
action, et cetera. And it’s a powerful argument for those who have
gotten ahold of it. The response has been a halting one.”

Cho, who said that politics and language are inextricably linked,
suggested that the problem with discussions on race started with the
Bakke decision.

“We sort of struck a Faustian bargain where we became defensive and
said we would no longer look at history as a reason for affirmative
action,” she said.

Edley pointed out that this is where the concept of diversity comes
in. According to his interpretation, the courts have said that the
country cannot pay attention to race, but diversity has been left open.

UC-Irvine’s Lara said that too much time is being wasted on the meanings of terms and too little on outcomes.

“We don’t have time to worry about getting people to care,” he
said. “Let’s work with schools and students if we want to see African
American and Latino graduates. Why not group and track those student
who can get into colleges.”

Azoulay agreed, saying, “I want to see how many you have hired in the last year.”

When asked if the President’s initiatives are going to work, Edley
offered, “They will work if leaders take it up and try to implement
things from the town talks.”

The panel concluded the discussion by suggesting that: communities
rely more on themselves rather than the government to ensure college
graduation rates; campuses form lobbying groups to work with
legislators; institutions use creative programming to increase minority
numbers; and advocates create a vocabulary that has positive
connotations for affirmative action.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

© Copyright 2005 by

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