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An Education in Affirmative Action

An Education in Affirmative Action

Nearly three years have passed since the first of two controversial class-action lawsuits were brought against the University of Michigan. At issue are the admission’s policies of the university’s law school and its college of literature, science and arts.
Based on a grid, the university determines applicants’ acceptance by weighing an array of factors — including geography, special leadership or personal achievements, the quality of the applicant’s high school, challenging nature of the students’ curriculum choices, grade-point average, as well as gender and race, among other things.
Ironically, the controversy centers not on the consideration of applicants’ standardized test results, geography or whether they are the child, grandchild, sibling or spouse of a Michigan alumnus. Instead, it centers on just one factor in the grid — race.
To those not familiar with the University of Michigan, these lawsuits may be little more than a sound bite about the continuing saga surrounding affirmative action. But the suits have far broader ramifications, some of which already are being felt on campus.
Changes have occurred in the social climate here. There is a heightened awareness of the potential consequences, particularly in light of the minority enrollment decreases following the repeal of affirmative action at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas.
Dialogue among students also has become more intense, richer, broader and deeper. Sentiments regularly can be read in the student newspaper, seen in student-directed television shows and heard in classroom and casual discussions.
Student protests in support of affirmative action, as well as teach-ins and symposiums, all have occurred during the past 12 months. While there is hardly a consensus, the important thing is that a civil and serious dialogue is occurring.
Further, the university has undertaken a more active role in supporting research that reinforces its position on the importance of diversity to the quality of education and interactions among students. The administration is to be commended for its staunch support of affirmative action in light of political criticism and the shift in national public opinion. The recent court ruling permitting students as co-defendants is sure to be greeted with enthusiasm by students of color.
On a more personal note, my life and the lives of my peers have been affected by the lawsuits. While I generally agree with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion that “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” the fact remains that there is a growing feeling on the part of some minorities of increased scrutiny and being placed under a societal microscope. Simply performing well on a test or answering a question in a class of more than 200 of my White peers seemingly has taken on a greater dimension.
While many of us have gained a better understanding of the theory of meritocracy and its negative effect on people of color, some of my White and Black colleagues, alike, characterize affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” or “stigmatizing minorities.” They posit the question of meritocracy in the almost exclusive context of racial-ethnic minorities, not in the broader context of women and White males.
During the past year, I have gained a greater sense that many of my White and fellow minority peers, particularly African Americans, do not fully understand the complex ramifications for the University of Michigan and higher education generally if the university retreats from its defense of affirmative action.
Despite the undeniable gains disenfranchised people have made through affirmative action, it is not rare to hear a student endorse an anti-affirmative action stance. And, it is not unusual to hear students assume lesser-qualified minorities are given preferences over better-qualified Whites.
While the ultimate outcome of this case is uncertain at best, one fact is known: Win or lose, the case has had a tremendous impact on my education.                                                                                                     

   â€” Rashad Nelms is a junior at the
University of Michigan majoring in political science and environmental policy.

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