Barack Obama has been talking about affirmative action lately. Being a highly (college) educated black man, the question has been put to him as to whether or not his kids should benefit from it on the basis of their race when they clearly have no need for it. He says no. I agree with him.
Going further, Obama suggests that the emphasis should shift so that class, not race, determines whether or not one benefits from affirmative action. As his case shows not all black people are underprivileged, yet there are many non-blacks who are. Affirmative action then becomes a tool for addressing inequalities for all, not just for black people.
It raises many questions, though…Does this mean that black people now have a level playing field in American society and that race is much less of an issue when it comes to societal inequality? Doesn’t de-emphasising race appear to diminish the acknowledgement of the impact and legacy of slavery – and everything else that came after it – on black people? What about the modern-day racism that one could argue is inherent in such a society by virtue of its history – is this becoming less significant now? Can you infact separate class and race when there appears to be a large correlation between ones race and ones social class (granted there are those who transcend that, but many who don’t)? What is ‘race’ anyway? As a social construct, does its use really help to define anything? It’s a complex matter.
In my mind, affirmative action should continue… maybe it should include ‘race’ and ‘class’. Mr Obama may be one of the lucky priviledged ones, but to do away with using race as a yardstick underestimates the subtle forces that are at play in what still is an unequal society. It is not a level playing field for black people, and even the priviledged ones still have their struggles, as he himself admits.
One thing that really bothers me when people talk about affirmative action is the idea that it helps black kids who are not academically able to get into colleges that they wouldn’t otherwise have a hope in hell of getting into, on the basis of their skin colour alone. Some believe that affirmative action requires a lowering of standards. That is not the point of affirmative action, and it’s not in the best interests of the colleges to do that anyway. Having attended Cambridge University where there is a similar ‘access’ scheme, I have seen for myself that other black kids who got in via the access scheme were equally as able as I who was privately educated from 3 years old.
The most important thing for me is that any system that attempts to redress the balance of inequality, in both race and in class (or any other measure for that matter), can only be a good thing provided that it’s meritocractic and allows those who have the talent, but not the support or means, to get where they ought to be. No such system will ever be perfect, however, but can only do the best it can. I’d rather something imperfect was done than nothing at all…