Fix system for all students

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. March 31, 2011

By William Eastman

The topic of affirmative action is visceral and arouses emotional debates. This letter is written in response to two pieces published in The Daily Targum — the March 24 column "Remove all bias from academia" and Tuesday's letter "Affirmative action provides level playing field." I appreciate the opinions of both authors and the fact they expressed them civilly. Often, we can let our emotions get the better of us. I would like to take a moment to amiably disagree with both authors' presentations of the critical issue of affirmative action.

Both letters present a binary of the typical sort — against affirmative action or for it. Often in political issues our opinions are constrained to two choices —Republican/Democrat, pro-life/pro-choice, raise taxes/lower taxes, etc. Such constraints limit our discourse and our options. There are merits to affirmative action and there are also flaws, but what is most important is we recognize that, like the author of the letter says, the concept of the American dream can sometimes allow us to forget there is inequality in this country, and it plays itself out most emphatically in education.

Systemic inequality in America's education system is a grave threat to our country's future. Anyone who believes every child is given a fair opportunity need only travel from a school in the affluent suburbs of New Jersey to an inner-city school to recognize the huge "education gap." This inequality predominantly affects minorities, who live in poorer neighborhoods due to both formal and informal discriminations that plagued our great nation. Research has shown the strongest predictor of students' success is not the color of their skin, but the quality of their teachers and their access to educational resources. Students of all backgrounds suffer from poor teachers and a lack of access to necessary educational resources. Affirmative action focuses on the individual, not the flawed system.

An individual approach is the source of a lot of personal scorn toward affirmative action. Students who do not benefit from affirmative action feel they have been personally discriminated themselves and sometimes rightfully so. Affirmative action, as is, assumes a person's background based upon their race/ethnicity. We all know this can be extremely problematic. The author of the column is right to point out that it is unfair to benefit one person based solely on the color of their skin, not their personal experience. But the author of the letter is also right to recognize there must be some way of correcting the discriminations that led to such inequality. The way to do so is to focus on improving opportunity in the United States through educational reform that will give all students a sound education from the start and create a society that is well equipped and diverse in all aspects.

Inequality in the United States is like a tree with a compromised foundation, and affirmative action is a process that trims the highest reaching — most successful — branches of that tree. By focusing on alleviating the most talented, highest-reaching students from a decaying structure we forget it is the system that is flawed, and we ignore all those who never make it to the top, or even to the middle, because of the system that fails them.

Bad schools fail students. It is not the other way around. If we are to argue the merits of affirmative action, I would compel the participants in such an important debate to recognize what we are really talking about — equality in education. The inequalities in education in the black community are reflective of the societal discriminations blacks suffered. A government strong enough to inflict injuries on its people must be strong enough to redress those injuries. It is high time we work together to fix the flaws in the education system so our nation may thrive. As the graduation rate in the United States drops, we must be conscious that our strongest competitors in Europe, East Asia and elsewhere around the world have a high school graduation rate, and almost all of their students go on to some form of higher education.

It is in our national interest to work to make sure every student has a chance, regardless of where they grow up or what color their skin is. Whether or not we support affirmative action should not prevent us from recognizing this national imperative to fix our schools. When we do, we will realize the American dream, and we will transform our national future. I implore the great minds of the University and the nation, regardless of their personal beliefs, to begin a national discourse on how we can fix the broken education system in a way that works for all, not just the privileged. Let us not wait. The time to act is now.

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