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Until Bias Ends, We Need Affirmative Action

Guest Column Erion J. Clark

My purpose in this column is to help you decide for yourself whether or not affirmative action is still necessary. Even before I had finished reading the column by Stacey E. Blau '98 ["Taking In the Scenery," Sept. 23], I started to think about how to respond to the assertion that "diversity goals" - which are a result of affirmative action - "are thoroughly insulting."

I am only one man, an African-American, so please do not use my words to incorrectly summarize the argument for my particular group of people. That is an assumption that people often make. When they encounter too few others who are not similar to them in background, they take one person's words and apply them to the entire group to which the person belongs.

Another assumption people make is that so-called "average" people don't deserve the benefit of the doubt. In Blau's example, an average person who landed a job couldn't be readily accepted if that person was a female or a non-white male. The automatic assumption is that race or gender imply a lack of talent or potential. I think that through welcoming more and more non-white males, society will put an end to such assumptions because there will be - and there are now - more examples of people of both genders and all races doing good work .

Blau uses Campus Preview Weekend, which is geared toward women and minorities, as an example of an insulting measure to realize diversity goals. I would like to know how many of the other students who attended the event felt the same way as Blau after they heard from members of an older generation who were treated in an unwelcome manner by society or perhaps by MIT itself.

My mother can recall the times when as a child she had to use a water fountain labeled "colored" or when as a teenager she was called "darkie" and other derogatory names by the local residents near her Connecticut boarding school. My father can recall having to sit in the balcony seats in movie theaters when there were better seats available below. Keeping these memories in mind, I treat any effort to welcome people from groups who were discriminated against in the not-too-distant past as acts of kindness, not of condescension.

MIT benefits from having significant numbers of non-white people on campus. Some organizations wish to ignore their responsibility for past transgressions, such as allowing themselves to flourish in a segregated or racist society. MIT wishes to be counted on the side that feels that, through affirmative action, it can help prevent society from repeating the past and can help make the future better.

As a member of the MIT community, I hope that everyone feels welcome on every part of campus. I feel welcome here because it is my campus, just as it is your campus and our campus. As human beings, we should all feel welcome everywhere on Earth. I don't feel that I should change my thinking if some people want to exclude me from their part of the world. It is good for the Institute to extend a warm welcome to students of certain backgrounds because it is quite possible that these same students have been on the receiving end of some ill treatment by society, even today.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that one day people would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." One idea should be added along with this quote: King believed that an intermediate step between segregation and a color-blind society was to celebrate the differences and similarities we have. In doing so, he believed, mainstream society could atone for the injustices of the past. One day, affirmative action will not be necessary, because we will have a society that truly and completely believes in King's beliefs and adapts them to everyday life.

As one of the fruits of the civil rights movement, affirmative action has not been in place for a very long time. Thirty years is a short period, particularly in the context of the over four centuries it took to eliminate most of America's racism. I hope that affirmative action doesn't take nearly that long to accomplish its goals.

It is my feeling, however, that when people are routinely questioned about their abilities because of their race or gender, when they are told that their particular voice doesn't need to be heard, or when injustice occurs anywhere, that we have not arrived at that time. Who says that we can't keep trying? Unless we stop fighting for change, that time will eventually come.

Erion J. Clark is a member of the Class of 1998.