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Equality Must Be Actively Sought After

Guest column by Emily Yeh

In Michael Chung's column ["Quotas Exacerbate Prejudice Problems," Sept. 24], he says, "The problem of perceived racism and discrimination perpetuates itself when minority leaders and groups complain of unfair treatment." Allow me to paraphrase: Discrimination probably isn't real, but even if it is, you minorities should just shut up and stop whining.

Consider the following:

* A 1991 study by the Urban Institute found that with the same resumes, employers treated African Americans in Chicago and Washington less favorably than white applicants 20 percent of the time.

* In 1960 the unemployment rates for Blacks and whites, respectively, were 10.2 percent and 4.9 percent. In 1990, they were 11.4 percent and 4.1 percent.

* The median income for year-round full-time workers in 1990 was $30,186 for whites, $21,540 for blacks, and $19,314 for Hispanics.

How many under-represented minorities are corporate CEO's? In the state or federal government? In the MIT corporation? There is no basis for the myth of rampant reverse discrimination, which Chung has so readily bought into. However, he might argue, these figures demonstrate that minorities are simply less qualified, not that there is any sort of discrimination against them. Suppose we accept this. We must then ask, why might this be? The only explanation lies in the differences among educational opportunities and incentives provided by society for different groups of people. In other words, because of the discrimination which Chung is so loathe to acknowledge. And, when he does acknowledge it, he blames it on the victims.

For instance, he says, "discrimination will persist if [minority] groups continue to seek after and demand equality on the level of job acceptances and college acceptances." That is to say, minority groups have no right to expect equality in something so precious as a college education. But even this "limited equality" is not available to underrepresented minorities. Inner city African Americans have a higher mortality rate than the poverty-stricken people of Bangladesh. Let's get one thing straight: Discrimination in this country is real, and persists at every level.

Even worse, Chung conflates the very real plight of minorities in America with his own fanciful variations on "political correctness." He misses the fact that there never was nor ever will be a "PC movement" per se, and moreover, that the term PC means something different to everybody. By confusing his fantasy of the group of "People with Naturally Curly Hair" with the widespread dismissal of African-American employees from large companies, or even suggesting that one could lead to the other, Chung diminishes the importance of the latter.

Finally, Chung makes much of the much-touted "color-blindness" which is supposed to prevail were it not for quotas. The problems are two-fold. A color-blind official policy does not necessarily translate into equitable hiring. Moreover, in our society "color-blind" translates in practical terms to "white." It means that we should ignore the cultural variety that might make us richer as a society and instead view one and all as the same "average American." Otherwise, Chung implies, minority groups will "debilitate the progress of society in the process." Which society?

In Two Nations Andrew Hacker offers a parable in which an official visits you and says there's been a mistake and you were supposed to be born black to other parents. At midnight tonight you will become black while remaining the same person. Because it is a mistake, you will be compensated financially for having to live as a black person for the next fifty years. When this parable was offered to white students most felt it was proper to ask for $1 to $50 million for each coming year as a black person. What does this say about the value we actually place on the color of our own skins? If we were truly "color-blind," what should that value have been?

Hundreds of years of slavery and persistent discrimination cannot be made up for by the 29 years since the Civil Rights Act and reluctant affirmative action. We ought not seek to stifle the burgeoning of equality which has so recently taken root.