What Affirmative Action Actually Means
Issue   |   Wed, 09/19/2012 - 01:05

In the last issue of The Student, Katrin Marquez ’14 wrote an article about the College’s commitment to a policy of affirmative action. The article was sharply critical of the policy, and she raised a number of good points to support her criticism. For example, despite our policy towards “diversity,” the campus is visibly polarized along racial, ethnic and class lines. She also recounted stories from her own experience meant to demonstrate that affirmative action unfairly stigmatizes minority students as “Other.” While I can hardly disagree with many of her observations, I don’t think affirmative action is to blame.

Let’s say that I, desperately hungry, decide to make a sandwich. The mere commitment to making a sandwich is, I tell myself, an important first step. In fact, I might even loudly declare that I am committed to making a particularly amazing sandwich, one packed full of all the most delicious ingredients in the world. Secretly, I hope this will compensate for the fact that I have subsisted on peanut butter and jelly for my entire life. Then I slather two pieces of bread in mayonnaise, squish them together as tightly as I can, and take a bite. It’s not quite what I was hoping for. There’s something missing here. This sandwich is just as bland, if not blander, than what I’m used to. What should I do? I could blame the sandwich itself. I could declare that because this sandwich doesn’t live up to its immense promise, there’s something wrong with it; or I could recognize that making a good sandwich is a process, and that a statement of intent along with the rudimentary first step does not complete it.

I am not criticizing Katrin or her article; rather, my guns are trained squarely on the College itself. You see, a long time ago, someone told our all-male, largely white college that other good schools were letting in students who were neither of these things. We held out for a while, perhaps steadfastly clinging to the memory of that one Japanese student we had in the 1870s, until in 1975 we could hold out no further. That was the year in which we went coed, finishing, I believe, joint-last with Dartmouth in the race to move into the days of the 19th Amendment. I wasn’t at Amherst at the time, my parents being 13 and all, but tales I have heard told of it from that era are not always pleasant. Fraternities gleefully burned down their houses, or used them as vantage points to launch bricks at the family cars of prospective students. When the College became coed, advisers told their female advisees that their career prospects could only be improved through marriage. One professor, enraged at the idea of teaching a blind student, ranted his indignity to his class, with that same student in attendance. Overall, it wasn’t the prettiest picture, but time went by, and we began to change. We got rid of fraternities in hopes of having an inclusive social scene. We had at least one college president who talked (and talked and talked and talked) a lot about diversity. Now, we have a female college president who also happens to be openly gay. Mission accomplished, right? Well, no.

You see, while the College talks (and talks and talks and talks) a great deal about diversity, their actual commitment to it is rather sketchy. The Multicultural Resource Center is located in a basement, and most students don’t have time to either read up on Tim Wise there or attend one of the MRC’s ridiculous “Elephant in the room” events, at which, at least in my observance, much is said but little is resolved. It doesn’t help that institutions like the MRC and, indeed, many similar groups are often badly underfunded by the College. The same past president who enjoyed bloviating on diversity once told a group of students that the college had done everything it could to make people socialize outside their comfort zones and that if we failed to do so he and his colleagues would “be…very…disappointed…very…disappointed.” (Ellipses and italics my own.) I wish he were right. I, however, feel that the College is only committed to putting the mayonnaise on the bread, afraid to add any ingredients to its sandwich. I understand why this could be; I can’t imagine that the Board of Trustees, or indeed most alumni, is thrilled by the notion of their alma mater being “overrun” with students who don’t look like the ones they went to the College with. Nonetheless, the fact is that the “pro-diversity” faction of our college seems institutionally afraid of implementing all the necessary ingredients to create an inclusive campus.

Here’s the thing, though. Once a sandwich is prepared, it cannot eat itself. It must be savored and enjoyed by someone. That’s why I can’t spend all my time blaming the school for this problem. We are, at the end of the day, the students here, and we are, at the end of the day, at least partially responsible for breaking barriers down. I understand the need to surround yourself with people like you, especially when the school does so little to acclimate you. Part of the burden, however, must fall on us to help create the sort of campus we want to see. Let me close by making one final point. Katrin claimed that minority students are stigmatized by affirmative action. Fair enough, but that’s hardly the fault of affirmative action itself. It’s the fault of white privilege and of a society that teaches us that affirmative action is something lazy people use to get benefits they don’t deserve. It’s the fault of students brought up in that society who bring those notions with them. The ultimate irony is that most if not all students at the College have benefitted from some sort of affirmative action. I certainly have. I have a mother, an aunt, an uncle and four cousins who go or went to the College. Can I honestly believe that didn’t help my application? Even if it was some sort of decisive factor, however, I know I belong here and am qualified to be here.

Therefore, I strive to make the most of the incredible educational opportunity given to me, as do all my friends who are themselves benefits of some form or another of “special treatment.” If you stigmatize or think less of minority students because of some perceived boost they got, then shame on you because being white and well-off probably helped you get into the College at least as much. In fact, the burden probably falls more on you than it does on anyone else; you scream that minority students are lazy and shouldn’t be here? Gee, why would they bother to form cliques in such circumstances? Instead of moaning about all the students who go here on financial aid or free ride scholarships, make yourself as distinguished as the racial and ethnic minority students I know who are jaw-droppingly brilliant, admirably strong, courageous and magnificently unique. Better still; make them feel welcome rather than token students on a college long notorious for its chauvinism and privilege. If you feel that affirmative action hurts the College, step back and think about what the College would look like without it, with our past as a reference tool, and think also about what the College ought to be and is not in spite (not because) of it. Losing affirmative action will not make racial labels disappear; overcoming our own prejudices will. If we are to make a truly great sandwich, we need more than just a verbal commitment and two pieces of bread.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Mon, 09/24/2012 - 15:27

Preach!!! Brilliantly written Mr. Baird!