THE BLOG
10/15/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Affirmative Action: Race vs. Class

Shutterstock

I absolutely earned my admission there and earned my right to stay once I was there, but I have no doubt that my acceptance to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and Georgetown's School of Medicine were directly and indirectly impacted by Affirmative Action and its legacy. I have personally benefited from Affirmative Action.

I grew up in one of the United States' many non-traditional communities (NTCs). Our micro-community was comprised of orthodox Jewish families, families whose history was from other lands, farmlands and communes. We were people of color, people who learned English as a second or third or fourth language. We were many hues of brown and our holidays usually did not appear on a standard issue calendar. Our larger community was comprised of families with parents who were doctors, lawyers, professors and architects. This created the daily tension between what we were taught in our families and what we were taught in the schools and class structure where our families fought to raise us. Our parents ran small shops, studied at Shul, worked in the elementary school, were lab technicians, a few even elevated themselves to executive status but absent the cultural qualifiers innate to the upper middle class.

Our parents were immigrants from Israel, Latin America, China, India, urban ghettos and rural farmland. Their parents were farmers, factory workers, and field hands. Most were not college educated, or educated outside of the U.S. in systems that the U.S. told them did not hold value. I watched my best friends father, an accomplished architect from. India, study for and fail the US Architectural exam year after year because although brilliant, his mind could not compute English fast enough to complete the test within the required timeline. He went on to design significant structures and community spaces in the Boston and Cambridge area, all before finally passing that "necessary" professional benchmark. The cost: his dignity and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary.

Our parents did not know about networking (beyond mandatory cultural activities on Sunday: Chinese weddings, Indian gatherings, visiting new Jewish mothers to help cook). They with held money so that we would learn to earn it ourselves. Their parents had taught them the same and they arrived from foreign lands and farmlands with very little in their own pockets. They had pride in teaching us this value, but did not understand that because we had to hold work study jobs and baby sitting jobs and catering jobs while we were in school, we were less available to network, participate in student government, build strong connections in our dorms and join other university institutions that foster connections and cement lifelong social capitol. When I applied to Georgetown, not only did I not know any one who had ever graduated from there, but neither did my Mother and even if she had she would have more likely thought it shameful to ask for their help with my admission, rather than an expected social benefit.

Even though our parents worked tirelessly to achieve upper middle class benefits within one generation (we went to well resourced schools, had access to excellent health care and all went on to college), they did not understand or even hold the beliefs of the upper middle class. And this is where the lens offered by Affirmative Action played and continues to play a necessary role in leveling the playing field. It is not nearly enough to just have a degree in hand. There are extended benefits and privileges that accrue to those who gain access to top universities, so that Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jrs.' claim in Mismatched that " minorities should go to less prestigious schools because they will be more successful there." becomes even more offensive and insidious in its complete lack of recognition of the power of social connections and ones ability to learn and leverage the principles of middle class American ideals; and the cost for those without access to or mastery of these principles.

Now viewed through my adult eyes, I participate and create connections and social capitol for my self and family. I have lived and can now articulate some of the significant benefits and privileges that come with being middle class: family connections, access to family financial resources, university and professional connections, the expectation of leveraging what is available to you to further ones education, professional success, financial success. I can see what our parents did not know and how this impacted how we show up. We were taught to not only believe, but to show appreciation that we had been gifted a favor or an exception. They taught us to rely on no one, ask for nothing, earn everything so we grew up self-reliant in a world better suited for collaboration. We grew up afraid of "the ask", because we were taught that it was shameful.

Imagine going into a critical business meeting thinking you had been granted a favor, rather than the way many of my mainstream peers who graduated side by side with me think "It is an opportunity for you to engage/invest/fund me and my ideas." Who will be the more successful? And when I have tried on this same language, but coming out of my Black mouth, I have been accused of being uppity, full of myself. Once I was even fired for stating the obvious: that I was smarter and better prepared to do my job than the company founder. I was told in no uncertain terms "How dare I think that I had the right to see myself as more qualified."

There are still times professionally when attending a conference on innovation, where I am one of very few brown faces in the crowd that while others freely begin conversations with the strangers standing next to them, they will not come sit at my otherwise empty table or strike up a conversation with me or expect that I am an expert in my field. And the cultural values that I was taught prevent me from feeling comfortable with bragging about myself, showcasing my expertise, asking for more, a bigger role, the right to be heard, to show up on Sunday morning talk shows.

And even more harmful is that despite apparent increased levels of comfort with conversations on race, diversity and inclusion, a recent proposal that I made to a large well-respected think tank to perform an assessment of and design programming related to diversity and inclusion was met with a fast and very uncomfortable no. I was told that I could have a seat at the table, but that the table itself was absolutely not going to change so that I would be respected, allowed to participate as my self and have my word valued. This after attending a symposium on innovation at the same think tank, where despite indicating that I wanted to speak for more than half of the session, 43 minutes in only white men had been chosen to share. I did receive an invite to attend their next event. It was about black female athletes. I have no doubt I would have been allowed to speak at that one.

This is but one example of how our parents entree into, but not full understanding of middle class culture impacted our ability to show up and why Affirmative Action was necessary then and is still necessary now at so many levels within our society. It is why Richard Kahlenberg's suggestion that we replace racial preference with class based preferences is not enough. One can have certain identifiers that indicate participation in a certain class (parental income, education and access to community resources), without having the other cultural benefits or relationships inherent to belonging to that class. This works in the reverse as well as studies show that middle class Americans who find themselves temporarily indigent due to job loss or other crisis, will secure far more government benefits and return to work much faster then those who grew up poor.

Abigail Fisher says "there were people in my class with lower grades, who weren't in the activities that I was in who were being accepted at UT and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin." I seriously doubt this Miss Fisher. And welcome to my every day.

These cultural differences, inherent and often hidden racial prejudices along with significant continued outright prejudice continue to exist. I have been NOT chosen to date, lead, be hired, accepted into and denied the benefit of worship all because of the color of my skin. My children, are still told that a D is passing grade that they should be happy with despite attending one of the highest rated public schools systems in the United States, where 98 percent of the children go on to college. Their teachers continue to have lowered expectations for them because of the color of their skin.

I have worked most of my personal and professional life to build understanding, eliminate bias based on cultural and ethnic differences, to live transparently so people can understand the impact of race and culture and class. I have friends who sit around my kitchen table from all walks of life. The quickest test to know if you are living a life of diversity and inclusion is to review who you've invited to your home for dinner for the past year. There is your answer.

The other day I was at the home of my best friend. Her daughter had company and the guest began to explain an incident that happened at school and intentionally slaughtered the grammar while doing so. I reprimanded, then corrected her (she is 13) and almost simultaneously, my friend was less concerned. It came clear to me once again in that moment, that I had learned well the lessons of my farm raised mother. She was able to make clear to us that we could not afford a misstep: in education, manners, dress or language. Yet/And in that moment I looked at a friend who I consider my soul sister, fellow Jew, tribes mate and I was reminded that her middle class white daughter and my middle class brown one are still not playing on the same field or with the same set of rules. The white skin, financial legacy, family connections of her daughter makes her daughters play with words a funny moment. For my own daughters, brown, absent the family financial legacy, well-educated this same use of language would leave her stigmatized, bereft of opportunity.

To me, the true legacy of Affirmative Action is to create equal expectations for all people. We are too far off from having reached this mark to believe that now is the time to end the racial preferences and more significantly the extended benefits that accrue when a society becomes accustomed to seeing brown faces next to them in the classroom, on their streets and on the playing field. This is the only thing that will ensure that they expect and live their lives to ensure that there will be brown faces next to them in the board room, the surgical suite and the university classroom. Many people of color who I know can tell you stories of assuming to be the janitor or the service professional instead of an executive colleague . Last year, my wife was being honored at an event by a major university. We were attending the reception prior to the ceremony, in a hall filled with almost a thousand people. She was dressed in a beautiful suit, talking with a fellow board member, when she was interrupted by another guest and asked if she could go and refill their drink.

This, is the failure of expectation. People I work side by side with, but whose eyes glaze over when I wave to them on the street. Not because they are rude or intentionally ignoring me, but because they do not have the expectation of knowing people of color in their personal lives. My neighborhood is noisy today, so I sit writing this in the expected quiet of my neighborhood library. I have been interrupted three times by visitors to the library asking me for assistance because they have the expectation that the only reason that I would be in a library is if I was working in one. I've been happy to help. I was raised to do so. My mother, my aunties, my friends parents would be proud. But I am angry, exhausted, fearful for my children and my children's children.

Several states are now trying the Top Ten Percent rule for admissions to their state universities. This allows the top ten percent of the graduating class of public high schools to be automatically admitted to the state public universities. There is proof that it has not maintained wide-spread racial diversity in a broad scope of classes. So while diversity numbers may appear to remain elevated, it is a case of Simpson's Paradox. The wrong factors are being used to reach conclusion. When one looks more closely at the maths and sciences, in these classes there are now much fewer brown faces. In addition, who is deciding on the factors of the 10 percent? Those who own the table get to decide who it is set for and therefore who will be welcomed there. If the 10 percent was based on the 10 percent most innovative, creative, articulate, ingenious, problem-solving factors, this would result in a radically different 10 percent. Affirmative Action is not only made to change the make up of who gets invited, it is most powerful in its ability to change the lens through which we look at one another.