ambivalent imbroglio home

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January 20, 2003

Default Affirmative Action?

I keep seeing bits about this whole affirmative action debate that I feel compelled to post; however, my reason for these posts is not that I want to defend affirmative action so much as I'd like to promote debate and discussion and critical thinking about the issues of social inequality and injustice that are woven into affirmative action. With that in mind, take a look at the beginning of this article about the rise of G. W. Bush [link via BuzzFlash]:

Two weeks before he was to graduate from Yale, George Walker Bush stepped into the offices of the Texas Air National Guard at Ellington Field outside Houston and announced that he wanted to sign up for pilot training.

It was May 27, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Bush was 12 days away from losing his student deferment from the draft at a time when Americans were dying in combat at the rate of 350 a week. The unit Bush wanted to join offered him the chance to fulfill his military commitment at a base in Texas. It was seen as an escape route from Vietnam by many men his age, and usually had a long waiting list.

Bush had scored only 25 percent on a "pilot aptitude" test, the lowest acceptable grade. But his father was then a congressman from Houston, and the commanders of the Texas Guard clearly had an appreciation of politics.

Bush was sworn in as an airman the same day he applied. His commander, Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, was apparently so pleased to have a VIP's son in his unit that he later staged a special ceremony so he could have his picture taken administering the oath, instead of the captain who actually had sworn Bush in. Later, when Bush was commissioned a second lieutenant by another subordinate, Staudt again staged a special ceremony for the cameras, this time with Bush's father the congressman – a supporter of the Vietnam War – standing proudly in the background.

That certainly makes it sound like Bush received some preferential treatment in his appointment to the Texas Guard; however, that preferencial treatment was not based on his race, but on his economic and social class. The article goes on to provide many more details about the story sketched above, but at every turn it's clear that Bush family connections and Bush's own cultural knowledge helped ensure that he always had the best options to choose from. So if this is the kind of system that poor and minority applicants are working with when they apply to things like universities or jobs, do affirmative action programs make any more sense?

In more on the connection between economic class and race in education, a recent study from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that:

Patterns of segregation by race are strongly linked to segregation by poverty, and poverty concentrations are strongly linked to unequal opportunities and outcomes. Since public schools are the institution intended to create a common preparation for citizens in an increasingly multiracial society, this inequality can have serious consequences. Given that the largest school districts in this country (enrollment greater than 25,000) service one-third of all school-age children, it is important to understand at a district level the ways in which school segregation, race, and poverty are intersecting and how they impact these students' lives. In our analysis we focus on two important components, race and segregation.

The researchers concluded that:

since 1986, in almost every district examined, black and Latino students have become more racially segregated from whites in their schools. The literature suggests that minority schools are highly correlated with high-poverty schools and these schools are also associated with low parental involvement, lack of resources, less experienced and credentialed teachers, and higher teacher turnover—all of which combine to exacerbate educational inequality for minority students. Desegregation puts minority students in schools with better opportunities and higher achieving peer groups.

The growing national support for "school choice" (via vouchers and charter schools, for example) will only exacerbate these trends, which in turn exacerbate the problems with trying to base university admissions solely on academic "merit" (grades, test scores, etc.) as Bush seems to be advocating. I say "seems" to be advocating, because it's pretty hard to tell where Bush actually stands on affirmative action—his speech last week said one thing, his brief in the Michigan case said another, and now his support for greater minority school funding complicates the issue further. Is Bush just trying to please all the people all the time? It seems he's not really pleasing Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice (unless their dissent is another tactic calculated by Karl Rove or someone else to try to mollify potential voters who didn't like Bush's position last week?). Anyway, lots of food for thought.

Posted January 20, 2003 10:26 AM | general politics

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