Yale University

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Yale and Affirmative Action

Bob Musil

September 14, 2013

Category: Society > Rights

We don't need a conversation about race. We need to eliminate gross racial disparities in income, health, education, exposure to pollution, and to violence that are the legacy of a nation founded in inequality and slavery. Even after World War II, the Armed Forces were still segregated; blacks were unable to use the GI Bill to move out to burgeoning, but racially restricted, suburbs. Civil-rights leaders and workers were murdered while we were at Yale; jobs, mortgages, and college were for the most part denied. Today, African Americans earn less and have fewer assets than other Americans. They disproportionately fill our jails, fight our wars, live in de facto segregated areas, receive less education. They are less healthy, live fewer years, and are subject to more violence than other Americans.

There are only a few possible explanations. Though less likely to be uttered aloud, some Americans still believe blacks simply are inferior. That this has been disproved repeatedly seems to be lost on many white Americans, especially those not faring well themselves. Outright racial hatred and bigotry are muted in our time, but they have not vanished.

A subtler version of racial inferiority as an explanation for black disadvantage is that African Americans have just not tried hard enough, or studied enough, or valued middle-class white culture enough to get ahead. The corollary is that many white Americans faced hardship and discrimination, too. They didn't whine; they succeeded. This version seems particularly popular among what used to be called ethnic Americans, whose grandparents or great-grandparents came from the old country — Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews all were considered inferior. Their assimilation and success proves that discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice can be overcome.

The problem is that if you are white, learn English, and get to attend a decent school, success may soon appear. My father, the child of Austrian and Swiss immigrants, never faced a day of discrimination. But he believed his success on Wall Street proved anyone could make it, even though blacks like Jesse Owens could not even come in the front door of the Waldorf-Astoria while my father studied finance. When we moved to the bedroom suburb of Garden City, Long Island, it had been closed to African Americans since its founding.

Given opportunity, African Americans flourish. Derek Bok's classic, The Shape of the River, shows that affirmative action for blacks admitted to the Ivy League actually works; they got the education, the self-confidence, the associations that create success.

Our legacy of race requires affirmative actions from all Americans and our government. We need to end de facto residential segregation and the school systems that go with it. We need income security, more progressive income taxes, an expansion of voting rights, and much more. It will not do to say that we live in a post-racial America. We do not. Or, that blacks are inferior. They are not. Or, that if African Americans just work and study harder, all will be well. It simply isn't true.