Roger Clegg, president of the right-wing Center for Equal Opportunity, stood up at a downtown hotel last week to give a press conference on Affirmative Action in admissions policies at the UW-Madison. He jabbed a finger into a debate that has been festering not just on campus, but nationwide.
Using UW admissions data from 2007 and 2008 acquired through an open records request, the Center for Equal Opportunity compiled studies that supposedly show discrimination against "white and Asian" students in favor of "blacks and Hispanics." Clegg was in town to unveil those findings in front of local press - and was met by an understandably angry crowd of student protesters.
The demonstrators were a diverse group. They were men and women of differing racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. And they had no interest in being deemed unworthy Badgers.
Let's get this out of the way up front: A person's intelligence is not determined by race or sex. Period. If you don't understand that, I urge you to read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and then get back to me.
Affirmative Action certainly is a polarizing issue. Begun via executive order by President Kennedy in 1961, the policy was meant to provide a counterweight to traditionally exclusionary hiring and admissions practices in a racially and sexually unequal American society. The order required that government contractors "not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin," and that they "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." Seems entirely fair, right?
The Center for Equal Opportunity and other anti-Affirmative Action groups argue that the policy is outdated and, indeed, flies in the face of establishing a more "colorblind" and egalitarian society. At a debate with UW law professor Larry Church held on campus later on the day of the protest, Clegg said, "We cannot have a policy that sorts people according to their skin color and according to where their ancestors came from, treating some better and others worse." That also seems fair.
The problem, of course, is that such language is a red herring. Affirmative Action isn't about treating some people better or worse, but rather about ensuring access to traditionally marginalized groups. It also fails to recognize the real inequalities and biases that persist in our society. I can't help but assume that this is all very much on purpose.
According to the data from 2008 cited in the Center for Equal Opportunity's report, African American and Hispanic applicants to the UW were admitted on a higher percentage than their white and Asian counterparts, despite having lower standardized test scores and class ranks. Contradicting that assertion, data available on the UW website for that same year actually show that a lower percentage of black applicants were accepted than white (41% vs. 55%). Is that an honest mistake, or is the Center for Equal Opportunity twisting numbers to suit their agenda?
Even brushing aside that major discrepancy, the single-minded focus on test scores and class ranks is dangerously misguided. The sad fact is that the game is still very much rigged against certain types of people in this country. The problems that prompted Kennedy to implement Affirmative Action in 1961 are not anywhere close to being eradicated, even though the situation may have improved.
Smart kids don't always test well, either. Even Martin Luther King Jr., undoubtedly one of the great orators, writers, and thinkers of the 20th century, scored in the bottom decile on both the math and verbal sections of his GRE. A perceptive college or university will take into account more than just scores when considering an applicant - things like extracurricular activities, a good essay, leadership and drive, something the Center for Equal Opportunity did not do.
Beyond that, not all students are given an equal chance to excel in the first place. The achievement gap that still exists in the United States has nothing to do with a stereotype-driven idea of the inherent intelligence in any particular race or sex. More than anything it has to do with the resources given to children of various racial and social backgrounds. Institutionalized racism, sexism and classism should shoulder much of the blame for these gaps, and until all of these isms are honestly debated and fixed, we can't afford to ignore the disparities.
The UW is still an overwhelmingly white school in a state that's becoming a little less monochromatic by the day, and we should be supporting its efforts to reflect that change.
A constructive debate over how to address inequality even before children reach the college admissions phase of their lives is vital. That includes a discussion of how best to implement Affirmative Action policies so they don't stray from their intended purpose. Twisting data to demonize a policy of increased inclusion is detrimental to those efforts. It's an insidious way of telling people that the students of color at the university are somehow undeserving, haven't worked hard to get there, and are taking spots away from white kids. It's divisive, hurtful and dangerous - because it's untrue.
Affirmative Action may well be an inelegant Band-Aid over a gaping wound, but tearing it off before we've found a way to make real progress toward healing would only lead to a deeper and more long-lasting infection.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.