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  • Reverend James Squire

Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court is now determining the fate of affirmative action. I will present the two sides of the argument and let you the reader decide from personal experiences with people who represent each side of the debate. I will also close with a question that no one wants to answer perhaps even you the reader.

One of the spokespeople who is against affirmative action is one of my stellar former Ethics students, John Yoo, who is the Director of Public Law and Policy Program at the University of California Law School. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and Yale Law School. John was on the side of those who allegedly thought that Harvard had discriminated against Asian Americans. He represents the conservative tradition. I invited John back to EA to enter into dialogue with our school community on conservative decisions that he had made including as legal counsel to the Bush Administration. Needless to say, I took a great deal of heat for doing this from the liberal wing of our school community. My response was that our students should know all sides of an issue.

On the other side of the argument is one of the great African American families in our nation who I was introduced to this family by their daughter who is an educator and priest, Paula Lawrence Wehmiller. Our kids played together when they were young. Charles Lawrence Sr. was the head of laity in the Episcopal Church, her mother was the first African American to become a psychiatrist in New York, her sister taught education at Harvard, and a brother, Charles Jr. wrote with Joel Dreyfuss the definitive book on affirmative action, The Bakke Case: The Politics of Inequality.

Today’s Inquirer did a very nice job of spelling out both sides of the issue by using quotations from the Justices, some of which I will quote or paraphrase. Both the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and the NAACP support affirmative action. The Supreme Court’s position has always been that diversity infuses a school community with important learnings. The schools that are the focus of the discussion are Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

“Justice Thomas said that he has heard the word diversity quite a few times. I have no idea what it means. He doesn’t see the educational benefits in it.”

“Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that affirmative action case based in race is dangerous and had to have an end point.”

“Chief Justice Roberts said that your position is race matters because it is necessary for diversity which is necessary is for the kind of education that you want. It’s going to stop mattering at some point in time.”

“Justice Alito said that it is like a footrace where minority students get to start five yards closer to the finish line.”

“Justice Katanji Brown indicated that UNC uses diversity as one of forty markers for admission. Since she is on the board of governors at Harvard, she has recused herself.”

“Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s position is that universities are about educating the whole student.”

“Justice Kagan stated that colleges and universities are pipelines to leadership in our country. Having a reduction of minority candidates would be problematic for our society as a whole. Our universities should reflect the diversity of our nation.”

One of the key arguments in Charles Lawrence’s book is, “The goal of the university of California of integrating the medical school and the medical profession did not come out of an aesthetic preference for a variety of skin color in the classrooms. The purpose was to bring a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences to the school and profession. Bringing in these experiences would help eliminate the causes and effects of past and present discrimination.” (Pg. 101)

A quote from one of my African American superstar students: “What are you finding most challenging at Harvard?” I asked. My student’s not to be forgotten response: “When I walk across campus, people look at me. Are they thinking I am there because I am black or that I deserve to be there even if I were white.”

In my opinion all colleges and universities are practicing affirmative action and will continue in the future no matter what the Supreme Court decides. I speak from experience after thirty- eight years at an elite independent school. Universities practice affirmative action when they select athletes for their teams, when they have a student whose parents are famous, as well as when a wealthy parent can make a donation to make the school better are just a few ways. Alumni get a special look with an “L” for legacy on their folder noting that they are a child of an alumnus/ae. I have seen this first hand and many more categories.

Here's the question that no one wants to answer. What about class as a category? Penn has done a wonderful job supporting first generation college students, but that is a very small amount of people in that category. Right now, the working class is feeling left out in our political processes. They say, “It’s best to be served or underserved, but what about those of us in the middle. Shouldn’t we count?” Here is the question. If you have to decide between a wealthy black student with all the supportive educational background known to man but with few activities and a white working-class kid who was first in his class at a public school and class president, who would you choose?

Education is the maker of level playing fields. That working class kid named above is me. My only choice was a state school because of lack of money (state schools and community colleges have been great for people like me.)

I was asked that question in different ways at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and at Duke. How in the world did you get in here with your background and become one of our stellar students? My answer was a smile because life is a two-edged sword. All of my life I have loved to learn. I lied to get my brother’s library card when I wasn’t old enough to take out books from the library. It was thrilling for me to learn something new and doing extra translations and math problems. Add to that to being competitive graduating valedictorian. Was that all that enough to qualify me for more choices. No! For me when I am honest with myself, my motivation was also to prove others wrong. “The best way to get even with an unjust world is to do what other people think you would never be able to do.” Prove them wrong keeps you in the library late at night. It sublimates effort into polite revenge against a system.

So, John Yoo and John Roberts, what about that overachieving working class kid whose father had a 6th grade education? What are you going to do for him or her moving forward? I never hear that question answered in a satisfying way. It’s called classism or being underserved. That is one of the biggest problems in our land today. The separation between the haves and have nots, with the working class feeling left out, if not addressed, will lead to our downfall because the divide is apparent with each passing moment, and the great divide is getting greater.

Notice there is no discussion of class and admission in higher education because there isn’t even a legal action on the Supreme Courts’ ledger to debate.

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