Beyond the Supreme Court – Difficult Dialogues

Affirmative Action and “Victimized Whites”

Retain Affirmative Action—Because It’s the Morally Right Thing to Do

So read the headlines of October 5 and 8 articles, respectively, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, leading up to the Supreme Court’s review of affirmative action in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Because I have been around a while, I have seen the presentation of affirmative action in such diametrically different ways more times than I can count.

I also have been aware of the legal history of affirmative action, which in one form or another began before 1965 and 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed executive orders around race and sex, respectively, and before 1972, when affirmative action regulations were applicable to most institutions because of the Title IX regulation.

There have been large percentage increases in the number of traditionally underrepresented students and women, in particular, in higher education since those pieces of legislation were enacted. We all know that there are many more individuals who do not even make it to the gates of colleges and universities. On the other hand, we also know that admission is not a guarantee of success in achieving the goals of higher education.

I believe that a variable in the decline in the success of historically underrepresented students is a political environment–particularly that Academe–in which resistance to the notion of affirmative action seems to be as strong and visceral in 2012 as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. I would not have thought this to be the case, given the fact that many colleges and universities have a critical mass of historically underrepresented students and emphasize diversity as an educational benefit. As I read the comments following the articles mentioned above, however, it was discouraging to think what some students must endure on college and university campuses when members of the faculty, administration, and staff hold such views.

For me, the future of access in its broadest sense is not as much about what the Supreme Court decides in the Fisher case as it is about the ideology and attitudes of the faculty, administrators, and staff in higher education. Many of the readers who responded to the articles on affirmative action that I mentioned above did not attempt to disguise the fact that they were referring to Black people, for the most part, when they talked about “victims,” “inferior,” “unqualified,” “character flaw,” “lack of responsibility,” and “violent behavior.” Having a position that Black students are at some institutions because of affirmative action and as a result unworthy of being there appears to be the attitude of many of those who responded bitterly to the notion of affirmative action.

Our colleagues need an opportunity to be in face-to-face dialogues with one another about their beliefs in facilitated conversations where they can listen, think critically, and learn, rather than glibly write their opinions behind pseudonyms in the public media. I have faith in the power of people to learn and attempt to understand others, and no one needs these opportunities more than our educators who are carrying agendas based on historical prejudices and misinformation. We should have teach-ins for our colleagues. If students are to learn about other cultures and benefit from interacting with others from diverse cultures, including different religious beliefs, our colleagues need to experience the same kind of learning. The key is to create an atmosphere in which people with what might be considered unpopular attitudes and stances will feel free to express themselves without self-righteous indignation from their colleagues who think differently.

People make fun of what used to be called “sensitivity training,” and- D perhaps the way this training was introduced and carried out deserve the derision, but something needs to be done to get educators in the same room with others who hold different opinions on an issue such as affirmative action, regardless of the decision of the Supreme Court, in order to have what have been called “difficult dialogues.”

The decision of the Court does not end the debate; it just goes underground and it smolders and eventually may damage those who depend on educators to prepare them to live in a world where intercultural understanding and communication is a requirement for not only their careers but for their life away from work. The good news is that, more often than not, today’s students are open and want to know and learn from other cultures. Faculty, administrators and staff who are locked into positions of ignorance are unable to help students move forward in a multicultural, diverse, and global environment. Our colleagues need help.

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