By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Shino Arihara|
I am an affirmative-action baby. At least, I think I am; though everybody talks about it as if its beneficiaries wear scarlet lettersor armbands, affirmative action is invisible to all but those privileged few — employers, college admissions officers — who actually keep the gates of power and collectively tend the manicured paths to American middle-classdom. All I know is that when I was admitted to UCLA in 1979, race was doubtless a factor, even though I more than qualified via grades and test scores. My acceptance letter said congratulations, but it didn't congratulate me for being black.
For the record, I did well academically and graduated in four consecutive years, but this modest success did not mean that life thereafter kept a straight course aided by the magical machinations of affirmative action. To the contrary, the real world was where I routinely began encountering racial antipathy, and apathy, and had a major institution of higher learning not so recently bolstered my intellectual confidence with a degree, I might have believed I was only imagining historical insults that arose. When a graduate professor years later accused me of plagiarizing a term paper because I "didn't speak that well," it was one indignity in a whole litany. The incident served to remind me that the value of affirmative action depends not on government largess, but on its recipients' perseverance. In other words, affirmative action does not end at getting into college or getting a job, but encourages the infinite pursuit of fairness in a million daily-life decisions. Such an imperative might be well beyond the dictates of affirmative action, but it is not beyond its essence.
Last month I met a tall, beleaguered, bespectacled law student named Marky Keaton who gave me reason to hope that the imperative did not end with my generation. Keaton belongs to a group of students who call themselves UCLA School of Law Students of Color, and last month they filed an amicus brief supporting the merits of affirmative action at the University of Michigan's law school, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next week. The group, alternately known as SCARE (Students of Color Against the Resegregation of Education) is a rainbow coalition of black, Latino, Native American and Korean, but it numbers only about 20, which reflects the scarcity of color at the law school since affirmative action was dropped by the UC regents in 1995 (and the passage of Proposition 209 the following year). The scarcity of blacks, whose presence has always been a bellwether of equity in higher education, is downright retro: This year's graduating class has five black students out of 300-plus. That five includes one black male, Keaton, who entered UCLA three years ago with one other black male.
Keaton has many stories to tell about the psychological toll of being the Only One, but it's a story we already know — James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, Little Rock before that. That we have something even remotely analogous in 2003 is eyebrow-raising, but somehow acceptable. Anthony Solana said he and other fellow group members had tried to organize affirmative-action support for three years among graduate students to no avail; even the radical outfit La Raza wasn't biting. The dean of UCLA's law school concluded that however sympathetic he and other faculty were to the cause individually, they couldn't get involved institutionally because it contradicted official UC policy.
Group member Steven Kwon doesn't buy it, especially from law experts. "To take this stand, students risk everything and the profs risk nothing," he scoffs. "It's cowardly for them to hide behind this thing of what's illegal and what's not. It's a matter of what's right."
Disappointed but undeterred, the group resolved to write the brief themselves. They spent the first months of the year drafting it between study and exams, once for 16 hours straight in a campus space that came to be known as the Civil Rights Room; Keaton and Erika Woods, another black student, did much of the principal writing. The group didn't have the academic imprimatur they wanted, but they still produced a cogent, clear-eyed argument for diversity as a compelling interest of the state and a necessary safeguard against the resegregation of public education already declared unconstitutional by Brown v. Board of Education.
The brief cites other legal precedents for diversity, and includes pages of testimonials submitted by fellow law students of color throughout the UC system who detail the isolation and unsubtle pressures of being, say, one of very few black faces in a constitutional-law class that routinely minimized or ignored the racial underpinnings of the American legal system. Students testified to being damned if they spoke out, damned if they didn't. When one raised questions about the "three-fifths" compromise in the U.S. Census, which counted a black as three-fifths of a person, her professor snapped that "this is a class about constitutional law, not race."
Another Latino student at Davis described the irony of having only four blacks on a law-school campus named for Martin Luther King Jr.; yet another student at Boalt Hall in Berkeley decried the fact that a storied black law publication on campus is withering because there aren't enough blacks to staff it. As painful and resonant as the confessionals were to read, the UCLA group says, the sheer volume of submissions to their testimonial request was empowering. "I think the people behind us in other classes are energized because we broke their isolation," says Solana, who grew up in East L.A. "That pent-up energy finally found some release."