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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary on affirmative action: Time for a new look

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I’ve decided that to achieve what Sen. Barack Obama referred to in his recent speech on race — the perfection of our union — we need to stop providing superficial remedies to social problems. I’ve begun to liken affirmative action to an anachronistic medical procedure that continues to be performed despite more advanced knowledge. It’s like treating the surface wounds and ignoring the underlying infection. Let me be clear: The need for affirmative action still exists. Unfortunately, race still powerfully affects individuals and shapes institutions. The malady still exists, but the remedy needs some updating.

During its infancy, affirmative action was pruned by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon. We all should know that quotas are illegal and affirmative action was never about promoting unqualified individuals. However, the rampant misunderstanding of affirmative action is all the more reason to re-examine it. When medical procedures become outdated, they're replaced with technological advances. Why shouldn’t we do the same with our policies?

Stanley Fish urged us to consider historical context when examining affirmative action. He likened racism and affirmative action to cancer and chemotherapy. Both cancer and chemotherapy disrupt the balance of a system; however, one is the cause of the disease and the other is the cure. I like this analogy, because it acknowledges that something needs fixing in our society — racism. It also acknowledges that affirmative action was created to remedy the situation.

However, as I look at affirmative action as a remedy, it seems like a Band-Aid or surface response to an underlying infection. Why can’t we propose a remedy for the root of the problem?

Well, when I think about the historical context, I can start to understand why. In the 1960s we had barely begun to implement the 1954 Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. We were in the midst of the civil rights movement. We didn’t have time for major surgery to heal an infection of racism that had seeped into every aspect of American life! (One could also ask how we could not engage in the major overhaul so desperately need.)

At first glance, I get that affirmative action seemed like a reasonable response. Legally, we were making strides. However, one need only recall the experiences of the Little Rock Nine to illustrate how far we were, as people and as a nation, from doing the real, necessary work.

So, here we are almost 50 years later. In many ways we have made major improvements. But problems persist and we continue to apply old remedies rather than develop new techniques. In the medical field, preventive care has been recognized as a true money saver: Exert effort to stave off diseases like diabetes and heart disease and save tons of money in the long run.

Affirmative action provides the possibility for equality for underrepresented groups if they happen to beat the odds and are competitive for employment or higher education. What if we engaged in preventive approaches all along the pipeline — from birth through graduation? My hunch is that we would increase the number of people from underrepresented groups who are competitive, thereby increasing the likelihood that fields would be more representative of the racial make-up of society.

We need a policy to address the inequality in the conditions and resources of our schools. We need a policy to create equality of opportunity early in life. We need a policy to ensure that students graduating from high schools in rural Appalachia, inner-city St. Louis and the suburbs will be comparable in their knowledge base. We need a policy to build a pipeline.

Until we have those policies, we are merely nursing an old wound. For a while, that treatment works. But after a while, the infection spreads, and it gets pretty stinky. That’s where we are today, with the arguments over reverse racism and colorblindness. We’re trying to claim that the problem is solved and we no longer need the Band-Aid. We should push ourselves to adopt preventive care before the situation gets further out of control.

In the mean time, we will continue to need our superficial remedy — affirmative action. Going back to Fish’s analogy — while we work to reduce the toxins in the environment to lower the rates of cancer, we’re still going to need the effectiveness that chemotherapy brings

Dr. Kira Hudson Banks grew up in Edwardsville and is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill.

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