Create affirmative action for the truly needy

Posted: Apr 03, 2003 12:00 AM

Presently, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the racist admissions policy at the University of Michigan. The university ranks applicants on a scale that awards points for SAT scores, high school grades and the color of one's skin. A perfect SAT score is worth 12 points. Being black earns you 20 points.

Such a policy is worst than discriminatory; it defeats its own purpose. Affirmative action is designed to help even the playing field for black Americans. But the majority of people taking advantage of the program are the well-to-do suburban bourgeois who already have the wherewithal to get into a good college.

Meanwhile, the most needy fall by the wayside.

The root problem is that most impoverished people have their sense of future possibilities crushed out of them at a young age. In poor, urban schools across the country, minority students are failing to learn basic skills in early grades. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading. If the students who reach high school are not able to read and understand the material, they see little reason to stick around in a place that has little benefit to them. Not surprisingly then, nearly twice as many black Americans drop out of high school as white students.

These are the people affirmative action needs to be helping not middle-class suburbanites. For them, affirmative action has become an entitlement. I'll never forget a speaking engagement I had at Harvard, where a wild pack of rich kids argued that they are owed affirmative action to make up for the horrible crime of slavery.

The question caused me to wonder aloud how much these victims pay a year for their Harvard education.

"$35,000 a year," a student responded.

I shook my head incredulously. "What precisely about your $35,000-a-year education has taught you to believe that you are a victim? I mean, why even go to college if you are already defeated?"

The questions went unanswered. There must come a point when black Americans expect to rise or fall on our own merits. We must acknowledge that we are not forever victims, just because we're black.

This is not to belittle the crime of slavery. It is true that a shared history of slavery has created social hierarchies that reinforced negative stereotypes about black Americans and cut off certain economic opportunities. It is equally true that racial diversity is an important goal for our college campuses.

I would merely suggest that affirmative action be used to benefit the needy. Students from disadvantaged schools can excel if we provide the appropriate opportunities. Instead of blaming the families for failure, as is common in education, we need to focus on ensuring that the education system offers solutions.

That means breaking apart those conditions that con many young minorities into feeling trapped, despondent and without hope.

Create an affirmative action plan that addresses the needs of minorities while they are still young, and it may just achieve - gasp - equality.