Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Dream

This is a long weekend for me (in the sense that I don't have class tomorrow), because of the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. As such, and particularly because I'm in this year's Michigan, this provokes definite thoughts about race.

This November, Michigan passed its controversial Proposition 2. For those unfamiliar with it, the exact wording of the initiative was as follows:
A proposal to amend the state constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education, or contracting purposes.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

Bad public institutions from using affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes. Public institutions affected by the proposal include state government, local governments, public colleges and universities, community colleges and school districts.

Prohibit public institutions from discriminating against groups or individuals due to their gender, ethnicity, race, color, or national origin. (A separate provision of the state constitutions already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.)

This passed by a 58-42 margin, and is thus currently the law of the land in Michigan. needless to say, my university is not terribly pleased about this. MSU did manage to avoid having to immediately comply with all aspects of this, in that they may continue to use the same admission policy for the rest of this admission cycle that they were using back in October - in my view, that's only fair. And though I should find a link for it, I read in the past few weeks that this apparently doesn't completely control hiring practices here, as we receive federal money, and the EEOC requires affirmative action for all institutions receiving federal monies.

Much to the chagrin of my more liberal friends, though, I'm glad this law passed. And it astounds me that so many people claiming to be following the teachings of MLK are angered by this. A quick look at Merriam-Webster defines racism as: "1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination" So, in other words, it's boiling people down to primarily their skin tone, and treating them according to that. Since affirmative action is a policy whereby historically underrepresented groups are given preferential treatment in admission and enrollment practices, I can't see how such a program is not, inherently, racist. That strikes me as completely antithetical to King's speech of his dream that one day, all would be treated not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

It would be easy to dismiss this as me simply advocating a policy that favors me. All of the ancestry I know of is white (assuming, of course, that you count Irish as white--it wasn't that long ago that it wasn't). The most probably ancestry for me to have which I don't actually know of is Jewish (there's likely a reason that roughly half the people I meet think I'm Jewish), but that's not a group that's historically underrepresented in education or the high paying jobs which come with that, so it wouldn't help me at all. But it should be noted, also, that I'm planning a career in academia. Even though I'm in science, most of my classmates are girls, and while I'm in one of the whitest areas of science, the numbers of students of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and other Asian ancestry are growing all the time. But these groups are not proliferating due to affirmative action policies. They're proliferating because (in very broad patterns, not necessarily at the level of specific individuals), they come from families which hold education in high esteem, they applied themselves in their classes, and they aren't primarily seeking financial rewards for their abilities.

To me, two wrongs don't make a right. To the extent that there are still discriminatory practices in admission and employment due to race, sex, ethnic background and whatnot, those are wrong, and should be eliminated. But you don't get rid of discrimination by institutionalizing another form of discrimination. It shouldn't matter if my competitors for a position, a fellowship, or whatever are black, white, yellow, polka dotted, men, women, or hermaphrodites. I should get the position if I'm the most qualified, and the most capable of doing the job. If I'm not, I shouldn't, regardless of whether the organization has fewer skinny dark-haired white guys than you'd expect based on demographics.

Those people who are advocating the continuation of affirmative action policies for reasons such as the idea benefits of increased diversity outweigh the costs of the programs have a point to argue. But they need to stop saying that it's about equality. Holding people to different standards because of their skin tone or reproductive organs or whatnot is not equality. It's discrimination. And if you want to discriminate, you need to be able to justify that form of discrimination, rather than try to claim that you're not discriminating.

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