I sat lazily in my friend’s dorm room sophomore year of college listening to music and hanging out. A Black male student walked in the room, introduced himself, and sat down with us. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, a friend of mine asked, “So what sport do you play?”
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t play sports.
The University of Michigan (U of M) is a relatively prestigious school, but the assumption that Black people can only get in because they play sports for the university is misguided and, frankly, racist.
But where do these stereotypes stem from? Does the fault lie in stereotypes that my friend needs to mull over and erase from her mindset, or is it in my school’s low minority enrollment rates?
The enrollment of Black people into U of M has decreased since the ban of affirmative action was instilled in 2006. According to Kellie Woodhouse, enrollment dropped from 7.5% to 4.1% of Black students making up the incoming freshman class from 2006 to 2013.
I once attended a social justice seminar in which we tackled the question of why so few Black students are enrolled in college in the United States. Black people, as a result of unfortunate financial disparities that exist, usually live in lower income communities. As a result, those who live in such communities experience an inordinate number of obstacles that those of higher income do not. Lower income schools are unable to provide their students with resources, in the form of teachers and educational materials, that match up to the esteem of other richer districts. In addition, low-income students often have parent(s) who work several jobs; thus, they are unable to help their children with homework. Low-income students experience setbacks by virtue of not having any money. If a student struggles in a class, they are unable to afford a tutor to help them get back on track. If they messed up on the ACT, not only were they probably unable to afford tutoring in the first place, they probably cannot afford to retake it.
Money is a privileging key to success in the United States. But why am I arguing for the need for affirmative action on the basis of race when it seems like I have argued that class status presents a need for a biased admissions process? While I think that there certainly must be affirmative action on the basis of class, there must also be affirmative action for people of color, especially Black, Latin@, and Native American people.
In the YouTube video attached to this post, there is a clear example of how racism operates in disproportionately disadvantaging certain groups of people. By changing his name from José to Joe, job offers quickly inundated his inbox. What does this say about many people’s assumptions about Latin@s? How does this relate to my friend’s assumption that the only possible way a Black student would have gotten into Michigan is via sports?
With the way our society operates, without the help of affirmative action, those deemed weak are doomed to fail. The Athenians in Thucydides famously state, “…the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Affirmative action is a means of balancing pushing forces, such as racism and classism, with a pulling force (preferred admission). Until we significantly increase the number of people of color who matriculate into college, it is unlikely that stereotypes or disproportionate income gaps will change, and they will forever be seen as weaker in comparison to White, upper class students. Without change, people of color will be doomed to fail; it is up to us to give people who exist outside the dominant discourse a chance at proving that they are worthy, despite the disadvantages they face.