I wrote a thesis a number of years ago on affirmative action so feel somewhat qualified to write on the subject. As a sociologist, I look at it as an issue of social capital. We each have a certain amount. Our social capital is accumulated from our socioeconomic strata, our geography, our own circumstances within our community and family, our intelligence, and a number of other factors that combine to produce opportunity and how we respond to that opportunity.
Imagine a white, upper middle-class, east coast white male. Mom went to Vassar, as did the other women in her family—her mother and grandmother, aunts, and sisters. Dad has a law degree from Harvard and is a partner in a top law firm. This young man will more likely than not, have music lessons, go to summer camp, belong to country clubs where he will associate with other (white) boys just like himself. At puberty, he will receive dance lessons and attend cotillion where he will learn to dance with (white) girls and have social events tailored to his age and social class.
He will play tennis, learn to sail, and will vacation in London and Paris. He’ll go to prep school, not public school, and after graduation, will attend Harvard as a legacy admit if his grades aren’t quite good enough to get him in on his own. He’ll join a fraternity—the same one his father and grandfather belonged to—and will get drunk on weekends and his father’s law firm will get him out of any legal trouble he gets into (boys will be boys after all) and pay for the abortions of the girls who get pregnant at the fraternity parties they unwisely attend.
The social capital this young man has is enormous. Both parents are college graduates so he has a large vocabulary from being exposed to educated conversation in the home. He probably had a nanny or au pair and likely was exposed to a second language (probably French) from infancy. He was probably limited in his exposure to television and if he watched, it was probably “educational” television only. His home was full of books and his parents probably subscribed to several magazines.
His schools were private, with high-caliber faculty and small teacher/student ratios and fully equipped language and science labs. With wealthy parents and the ability to travel, he was exposed to peoples and cultures that should have given him a wider perspective. However, he was also likely sheltered from contact with anyone different from himself by virtue of his wealth. Doors were opened for him as he began his career as he always knew how to dress, how to act, who to talk to, and how to talk to them. All of these factors add up to enormous social capital. This young man earned none of it.
Imagine a young girl of color. Her parents are immigrants with 5th grade educations in their home country. This young girl is raised by a single mother who works 3 jobs to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. This young girl is responsible for caring for her younger brother while mom is at work. Mom’s English is poor so she is often called on to serve as a liaison for Mom with various social service agencies, landlords, school officials, and etc.
Because Mom is poorly educated and has little English, the only work she can find is doing minimum-wage, back-breaking labor jobs—laundry, cleaning, and dishwashing. There are no relatives nearby to help with finances or babysitting. When Mom is sick, she works anyway or they go without food. She is unable to help with homework and because she has to baby-sit, this young girl often misses school. If she needs help with schoolwork, she is unable to take advantage of after-school programs that offer homework assistance. There is no television in the home and her English vocabulary is limited as she was raised with English as a second language. Her English is accent-free and she is bilingual, but this will not become an advantage until well into adulthood.
When she starts school, it will be in an inner-city school with run-down facilities, old books and equipment. Teachers are underpaid and the teacher/student ratio exceeds state standards. Teachers are inexperienced as it is difficult to get good teachers to teach in the inner city. There will be no prep school for this girl. School will be difficult as she tries to study while caring for a child, while malnourished, while tired. If she is able to go to college, it will be only if there are scholarships and student loans available, and if her grades are good enough. Without affirmative action, the likelihood of winning a scholarship is remote and there are many factors to overcome. She will have to get extremely good grades, find some way to become “well-rounded” and do community service, sports, and attract positive attention from teachers and someone in the community— preferably someone white and successful.
This girl has zero social capital. She is at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. She will be behind her peers when she begins school as she will not have the advantage of vocabulary, reading, or much understanding of the wider culture or social interactions (no television, no books, no magazines, no travel, no outings to cultural events). She will be unlikely to get much support for higher education as it is not a family tradition. At home, there is no tradition of homework, no understanding of proper rest in order to learn (and no way to provide it in any case).
When it’s time to apply to college, there will be no one to help, to open doors, or to help avoid the pitfalls and get her out of any trouble there may be (and help her avoid those fraternity parties). No one will help her get a job, pull any strings, or fight for her when she is discriminated against because of the color of her skin or the poverty of her life. This girl will face double barriers as she faces the discrimination of her color, and her sex, which is still very much a factor in our twenty-first century society.
So, affirmative action is unfair to whites? I don’t think so. It was always only designed to level the playing field. Saying that college entrance and employment should be based on merit only ignores the fact that too many of us have started from way, way behind. To say that affirmative action worked and that we’re all good is wrong. To hear the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck say that affirmative action hurts white men is laughable in the extreme. White men have had the power and control for hundreds of years, and still do.
My favorite example of why we still need affirmative action is this. Imagine a basketball game. Team A is playing Team B. Team A gets 5 players on the floor, 2 points per basket, and 2 points per foul. Team B gets 4 players, 1 point per basket, and no points per foul. At the half, Team A has 76 points, and Team B has 40. The officials talk and say, “This doesn’t seem quite fair. Let’s change the rules so that it’s equal. So, at the start of the second half, they announce that both teams get 5 players, 2 points per basket, and 2 points per foul. But, Team A still has 76 points and Team B still has 40. That’s why we need affirmative action. You don’t give someone that much of a head start and say it’s all good.
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