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Affirmative Action Doesn’t Shortchange Others

Jacob Faber and Pius Uzamere

Nicholas Baldasaro’s column “Affirmative Action and Human Psychology,” featured in The Tech Oct. 5, 2004, is one of the most offensive pieces of writing we’ve seen that hasn’t come from the desk of Clarence Thomas. His article attempts to make the following argument:

1. Affirmative action allows for the promotion of “low talent individuals,” and classifies these individuals as handicapped.

2. Due to this unbalanced advancement scheme, all white males scrutinize their accomplishments, “as a simple matter of prudence.”

3. This process systematically damages the psyches of all women and minorities; since they all feel the need to prove their qualifications to every new person with whom they interact.

4. Eliminating affirmative action where competition amongst individuals is important, like the workplace, will solve this problem.

The author’s arguments are predicated on his assumption that affirmative action allows low talent, underrepresented minorities to get into positions that low talent white men can not. Not only is the assumption he makes grossly incorrect, showing a dramatic lack of research into the subject matter about which he pontificates, the implication of his article is incredibly offensive and, indeed, the ultimate irony: his article exemplifies the very sort of ignorant, faux-authoritative bashing of affirmative action that engenders distrust of qualified women and minorities in this country today.

Mr. Baldasaro’s lack of knowledge about affirmative action is clearly manifested in the personal story he uses as an argument. He explains that when he was young, he was terrible at tennis. His instructor allowed him three attempts to serve to give him a chance at getting better. Baldasaro claims that his peers, due to this flexing of the rules, never gave him the respect he deserved and equates it with the discrimination women and minorities will face with each new person they meet. This parallel is absurd. This example has no relevance to a discussion of affirmative action, which is not about assisting poorly skilled candidates, but about assisting those who are victims of systematic discrimination.

Baldasaro’s likening of his female and underrepresented-minority colleagues to terrible tennis players, who are given three serves instead of one in order to be allowed to play with the others, is damaging. The same can be said for his jerry-rigged “solution,” which demonstrates the racial undertones that underpin the thoughts of many people in positions of power and, sadly, necessitate the continued need for affirmative action in the near term. The solution we see to the psychological damage pointed to in the article is to educate people like Mr. Baldasaro about the true definition of affirmative action.

The confusion over what a well-tailored affirmative action policy entails is a legitimate problem. Like any other policy, there are poor implementations in existence -- some of which may actually support Baldasaro’s point. These implementations are the exception, not the norm. The fact is, affirmative action at MIT and other institutions that have implemented the policy properly is not about promoting “low talent individuals,” as Mr. Baldasaro so offensively states. A good starting point for the research of Mr. Baldasaro and others may be to e-mail MIT Director of Admissions Marilee Jones (marilee@mit.edu) and ask to schedule an appointment. She’s a nice lady and we are confident that she would make some time available.

For those who would rather research in private, here’s the truth in a nutshell: every single student at MIT was subjected to a detailed admissions process during which he or she was deemed to be capable of being productive and successful at MIT. Period.

Affirmative action comes into play only at the final stages when making the extremely difficult decisions that come along with deciding between two qualified applicants. This is the time when the admission staff is comparing the “fit to the Institute” of Bobby, whose dad paid for him to learn 10 different languages and backpack through Europe for a semester, to that of Jerry, who started the world’s first solar-powered electric violin club at his local church and snorkels on weekends. Notice how none of these activities are essential to determining whether or not these students can graduate from MIT, but only to guessing at what each student’s potential contribution is to the positive atmosphere at MIT. Yet, these types of things are used in colleges and companies across the country to decide between two qualified applicants.

In considering the applications of those applicants for whom affirmative action applies, MIT simply faces the facts and recognizes that the race and gender of these qualified, underrepresented applicants do have the potential to contribute positively to the environment at MIT. No white male is “losing” a spot to a less qualified woman or minority, and no “low talent” individuals are being given an extra chance to serve their ball. As much as some people like to deny it, the presence of different races and genders at MIT is important. The issue is not just intellectual diversity and it is not just socioeconomic diversity. Yes, we said it: diversity in race and gender is important. If you don’t believe us, try asking ten of your underrepresented colleagues whether or not it is important. Better yet, try moving to a country in which your race is practically non-existent, and write us back in four years to tell us if you noticed a difference in your experience.

In 2003, MIT, Stanford, and others filed a joint amicus brief supporting affirmative action in the cases of Grutter v. Bollinger, et al and Gratz and Hamacher, petitioners v. Bollinger, et al (also known as the University of Michigan affirmative action cases). In this brief, MIT and Stanford discuss the fact that their affirmative action policies are only applied after students have been deemed qualified for admission:

“Both MIT and Stanford confine in-depth consideration to candidates likely to have strong prospects for academic success at these institutions by first setting a high threshold level of intellectual ability and achievement. Both schools discern this required minimum level of qualification from a number of indicators, which include grades and test scores and do not include race. These are the students who, based on these indicators, demonstrate a high level of qualification and the ability to succeed academically.”

MIT President Charles Vest said in a statement announcing this brief:

“Schools like MIT or Stanford University first establish which of their applicants cross a high bar of academic quality based on a range of indicators such as grades, test scores and class rank -- but not including race.

“Then we make difficult, subjective choices from among those applicants who crossed the high bar by assessing as best we can the whole person. Race is one of many factors considered at this stage to build an understanding of who each person is, and the context in which they have demonstrated accomplishment, creativity and drive.”

Now, either MIT perjured itself at the Supreme Court or Baldasaro is correct that affirmative action policies cause unqualified, “low talent” minorities to get positions over qualified white males. We’ll put our money on MIT. Of course, there are bound to be a few places where quotas and discrimination are put to work and called “affirmative action.” Those places are not using affirmative action -- they are bastardizing a good policy and are likely in violation of federal law.

Back to the article, Mr. Baldasaro mentions that “all minorities become suspect in the eyes of non-minorities, as a simple matter of prudence.” It is not clear what this statement is saying. Is he implying that all non-minorities are racist, and automatically doubt the ability of all women and minorities? Or maybe he is saying that all women and minorities deserve this discrimination because they have been spoon-fed success, and that only white males are worthy of respect. Either interpretation is quite frightening.

Mr. Baldasaro should be embarrassed of his caustic comparison of minorities and women to handicapped individuals. Must Condoleezza Rice, an admitted beneficiary of affirmative action programs, “prove... herself time and time again to each new person?” I wonder how many people who see her on CNN think, “How good are you, really?” as Baldasaro contends to be such a problem.

As minorities we are terrified of people, who, while perhaps well-intentioned, have a twisted understanding of the goals of affirmative action and make wild assumptions about those people whom it affects. Furthermore, we fear for their future employees, who will no doubt be under intense and unwarranted scrutiny.

MIT has done a great deal to support of women and minorities. However, reflection on our four-year tenure here has sadly caused us to come to the conclusion that MIT still has a great deal of work to do in terms of educating its students on issues of race and diversity. When even campus leaders such as Mr. Baldasaro (Burton-Conner President) hold these attitudes, it is obvious that some members of the MIT community still make MIT a less welcoming place for women and minorities than it could be.

Jacob Faber is a graduate student and Pius Uzamere is class of 2004.