Editor's note: This is part II in a series. Part I can be found here.In Part One of this editorial, I wrote about my father and my uncle’s experiences with the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws of the 60s and early 70s. Those laws worked well temporarily! The question for our generation is: have we reached the limits of what changing the law can actually do to correct such inequalities?
Every time I see a movie like Alex Halley’s “Roots” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” I marvel at how completely the savagery of slavery was institutionalized into the social and psychological foundations of our nation. Although we could debate about the historic accuracy of both films, we clearly see the irrational racial hatred that chattel slavery’s shadow has promoted in our land for nearly two and a half centuries.
Despite our negative collective history, the Civil Rights Movement peacefully repealed unjust laws and leveled the employment playing field for blacks in just a few decades. One could argue that the existence of the first black president, sworn in on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, signals the end of the season in which any kind of national assistance is needed for young blacks born into our nation today.
If this kind of assessment is correct, blacks are moving into a season similar to the period just after the death of Moses prior to the Israelites settling in the Promised Land. Ironically, Dr. King preached from this portion of scripture in his last message. He said, “I have been to the mountain top!”
The next step for the biblical Israelites was to take personal responsibility for their own advancement and that of their extended family. The land “that flowed with milk and honey” had been promised to them, but they had to subdue it. The Lord would guide; but they would have to provide faith, hard work, and elbow grease.
The application for us is clear. Given the huge financial crisis we face, there will be fewer and fewer companies and/or the federal government will take on the expense of elaborate corporate EEO programs. Therefore, families and individuals have to re-think what we can do at the grassroots level to transform America.
Those of us who favor some form of affirmative action must remember that many countries have tried to use the law proactively to equalize the standard of living between unequal groups. Nowhere have these policies succeeded in lifting the targeted minority groups totally out of poverty. Unfortunately, far more often they have bred both corruption and resentment. In India, where proactive laws were designed to address the centuries of discrimination and stigmatization of the lower castes, violent riots escalated between castes.
Furthermore, some higher caste individuals are often “adopted” into lower castes in order to take advantage of the laws. Sri Lanka once enjoyed relatively harmonious relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Yet it devolved into a twenty-six year civil war in 1983 in the wake of arguments over university admission standards and other policies.
My parents saw education as the great equalizer in American culture for these reasons: 1.) Scholarships are low cost, 2.) Education can transform lives, 3.) Exposure given by education can help raise qualified and principled minority leaders for the next generation. Given my parents’ enthusiasm for education as a catalyst for social change, their attitude begs the question: “How has educational relief or special admissions into superior universities worked for minorities in the US?”
While I think educational upgrading can break the cycle of generational poverty, it must be proved. UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. disagree with me. They have written a book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It.
They write that black students admitted to prestigious universities under differing standards “will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out. Because of mismatch, racial preference policies often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries, rather than creating the diverse racial utopias so often advertised in college campus brochures.”
New York Times best selling author Malcolm Gladwell also disagrees with me. In his book Outliers he agrees with authors, Sander and Taylor, about the academic performance of most students who attend professional schools on a quota or EEO basis: they start off behind the eight ball. Gladwell, however, traces the actual career progress of the individuals who attended the University of Michigan’s Law School. Ten or so years later, these graduates accomplished comparable career goals as their peers. They also earned similar salaries and the like. The major difference was their capacity to give back to their minority community and their sensitivity to the needs of that community. This impact is very difficult to quantify.
In disadvantaged communities, families must bind together and put their own children through school. Clearly, families should train kids in personal disciplines, social skills, and business skills. In addition, we have to create an internal culture of excellence with all of our minority homes. Armed with a clear vision of America and the faith of their ancestors, King’s dream may very well thrive with limited assistance from EEO laws.