The ABCs of Affirmative Action

As a member of the UCLA School of Law faculty a couple of years ago, I became aware of a very disturbing situation. One of my best students told me she was taking some heat from some of her "friends." The reason? She was excelling academically. I was especially saddened because she was a fellow person of color. Fortunately, she was strong enough to ignore such destructive forces and continue to pursue what she came to law school for in the first place.

It's a genuine tragedy whenever minority students are made to feel as if they're "selling out" if they strive to be high academic achievers. This is especially the case in the contemporary political climate in which, with the demise of affirmative action, the only way minority students can maintain access to the better universities is by excelling academically. No amount of political activity can alter that bottom line.

As far as African-American and Latino students are concerned, it's not even particularly important whether Proposition 209, the so-called "California Civil Rights Initiative," is approved or defeated in November. First, the University of California's Regents have already acted to end affirmative action within the UC system. Second, the trend in the courts throughout the nation is toward affirmative action's abolition; even private universities will ultimately find it difficult to maintain "race as a plus factor" affirmative action programs. Third, and most important, the issue of affirmative action has been explicitly introduced into the political arena, where its fate is inextricably tied to voter attitudes and perceptions.

Affirmative action programs that are perceived as granting an immediate, tangible preference to some based on their race have negligible support among those who don't receive the preference. The latter group outnumbers the former, decisively if the likelihood of voting is factored in. This becomes significant now that the issue has been sanctioned as one appropriately put to a vote. Principled arguments based on the fairness and legitimacy of affirmative action, given the continuing consequences of this nation's discriminatory history, simply don't speak to the structural political reality.

By now, it should be evident that if Prop 209 is in fact defeated, it will be due to the mobilization of women. Like African-Americans and Latinos, women stand to lose the benefit of affirmative action programs but have the singular advantage of constituting a huge chunk of the voting population. Should that happen, nobody should imagine that race-conscious affirmative action will have been saved. The second time around, Prop 209's supporters would simply bite the bullet and leave gender-based programs intact. After all, everybody has a wife, sister, mother, or daughter.

African-American and Latino students, then, are best advised to proceed on the assumption that affirmative action, whatever one's view of its merits, is in its dying gasp. The only way to get into the UCLAs and Berkeleys, and ultimately the Stanfords and Harvards, will be outstanding academic performance equal to that of the top white and Asian students. Far from being grounds for despair, this fact should ignite a massive reorientation toward academic excellence on the part of all those who have not yet focused on the strategic importance of educational achievement.

Minority students are far from alone in needing to hear that message. Every young person should understand that, in the information age, a lifelong commitment to education will be the single most important factor in determining career success. Preparing yourself to succeed is nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what your friends tell you.

*Andy Zelleke is president of Harvard Square Seminars, a producer of educational seminars in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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