By Lena Martinez-Watts
I was raised on a healthy diet of “diversity.” My mother was a teacher not only by profession, but also by nature and consequently, my early life was filled with excited moments of instruction and a love of knowledge. I learned that acquiring knowledge required exposure to new things and that any subtle anxiety I might feel when encountering something new should be understood as “excitement” rather than “fear.” My excitement grew as the lesson took hold and I learned that there was a very special word that could help me describe what I was so excited about: diversity.
It was beautiful. It meant new tastes, new sounds, new smells, new clothes, new hairstyles and most importantly- new thoughts. It was the simplest catalyst for creativity. Because of everything that it encompassed, diversity felt almost magical. Diversity was the magic word that we– all the good people of the world, celebrated because it was a universal virtue that would help save humanity from the atrocities of war and boredom. Not three, but four things abideth in my Christian home: faith, hope, love and diversity.
At twenty-six years old, my belief in the power of faith, hope and love are still strong. Diversity? We might be breaking up. It’s not that I have stopped loving new things or that I have stopped believing that the best way to access new things is by interacting with people from radically different places and experiences. Quite contrarily, the feeling of exhilaration I get from exposure to different cultures still organically drives my personal ambition. I am still really into diversity. But there is something uncomfortable about diversity within affirmative action discourse that I simply cannot seem to settle.
A part of me feels guilty for even suggesting that there could be something wrong. A social justice advocate questioning diversity feels as adulterous as a lawyer questioning the value of justice. However, an even greater part of me would feel guilty if I clung blindly to something that I was fed as a child without knowing exactly what it is that I so vehemently defend.
The issues started the first time I repeated the Grutter v. Bollinger affirmative action rationale aloud in an argument to a white peer. In Grutter, the Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible to use race as a factor in college admissions because achieving the benefits of diversity in the classroom was a compelling state interest. Yet, despite my use of the magic word, I didn’t feel like I was really winning the argument so much as I was justifying my admission to my peer. Not only that, but all of my justifications had to do with the ways that my presence would benefit his experience. Sticking to the Supreme Court justifications, I never got to mention anything about ongoing prejudice, discrimination or disadvantage. In this paradigm I wasn’t there to benefit from diversity; instead I was the diversity. It felt dehumanizing. I was a teaching tool. This justification is not one I want to repeat aloud again.
Law school was the first time I read Grutter v. Bollinger. After my first reading I felt incredibly empowered. Diversity had inherent value because the Supreme Court said so. Affirmative action was good because the Supreme Court said so. More specifically, diversity was SO valuable that it could singularly justify affirmative action. I had been waiting for this kind of affirmation since high school.
I was in high school when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Grutter v. Bollinger. As a student of color without any prior exposure to the concept of affirmative action, I was shocked by the impact this case had on my academic environment. Life had never been a walk in the park for this brown girl living in white flight suburbia, but the words “affirmative action” brought with them a special kind of aggression. A normal day of warding off racial stereotypes and latent attitudes of racial superiority turned into days that felt like living under grenade fire. With the same level of resolve I used to praise diversity, my teachers and peers spoke with disdain for affirmative action. As a student of color, I became immediately aware that this disdain extended past the actual policy and included disdain for the beneficiaries of the policy as well.
Their disdain was rooted in a belief that affirmative action was a mechanism of modern day racism. Reverse Racism. It took away what whites deserved and gave it to undeserving people of color, like me. It was the reason white fathers stayed unemployed- my white peers emotionally reminded me that until it was my father who lost his job to a black man, I had no place to say anything about it. Affirmative action caused injustice that I could not possibly understand because I was not its targeted victim. Consequently, any skepticism I offered was simply a sign of privilege, ignorance and arrogance.
Socially, my identity shifted from that of an isolated person of color to that of a token minority. As an aspiring high-school actress, I found my name on cast lists, not because I was talented, hardworking and responsible but because “they can’t have an all white cast now, can they?” It was frustrating to say the least. It meant that I had to work harder to outperform my peers by a measure that squarely challenged their undermining assertions. It failed to have much impact.
In response I wrote an anti-affirmative action paper for my advanced placement English class. Affirmative action was a problem because it gave people ammunition against me. I knew their assessments were inaccurate, but I was willing to sacrifice the “help” if it meant that my teachers and peers would lose their excuse to discredit my accomplishments.
My mother was visibly frustrated by the arguments presented in my paper. Each assertion, she claimed, was based on a false premise that assumed an equal playing field. Her words resonated on impact. Each day I saw students of color jump hurdles that their white counterparts never had to worry about. To be clear, these hurdles were not the same as those acknowledged by my white peers. These hurdles were not illiterate, uninvolved parents or a culture that simply did not value education the same way white society does. The hurdles were the various forms of ongoing discrimination and prejudice students of color faced from their teachers, peers, the media and society at large.
I stopped being angry with affirmative action as a policy. I learned to ignore the rhetoric that continued to be used against me and went to college. At Dartmouth, I felt revived because my old friend diversity was everywhere. I stayed up late making jokes and learning about Korean grandmas, Native Alaskan tribes, and the concept of being heteronormative. I also worked with admissions officers and learned that applicants were considered based on a wide range of factors, of which raw SAT scores and GPAs were only a part. Admissions cared about the range of a student’s achievement but also about the context in which they had made those achievements. One of those contexts was race within a racialized society. Everything felt right. I had diversity all around me and an institutional policy that undermined popular misconceptions about affirmative action.
But the whole world isn’t Dartmouth and so now my argument needs to go beyond explaining Dartmouth’s particular admissions process. As the Supreme Court takes up the new challenge to affirmative action, Fisher v. University of Texas, I really have to deal with this diversity issue. I need to defend affirmative action, without spreading the gospel of “Why my race is a good commodity for you.” It obscures the point.
I realize that as a student of color, I am not a party to this litigation. Students of color, historically, have not been. The litigants are two white plaintiffs and a defendant institution of high learning. As a student of color, however, I have a lot at stake here. Not for my future as a student, but for my future as an equal citizen of this country. As an interested party who stands to be greatly affected by the outcome of this litigation and whose interests might not be fully represented by the named defendant- against whose interest it is to demonstrate the lingering effects of its own history of discrimination- I hope that you will allow me to intervene with a few words:
As a student of color, I’d like to change the discourse before it’s too late. If the Supreme Court decides that affirmative action is unconstitutional, it will kill the most effective desegregation tool available to contemporary society. From experience and startling statistics I can assure you we are not ready for that.
Instead of talking about the benefits of diversity, let’s talk about the benefits of integration and the reasons why it is still necessary today. The problem with today’s justification of affirmative action is that it ignores the reasons why students of color might disappear without it. In 1978, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and three other Justices explained it well by asserting that race-conscious admissions were justified because the state had an interest in remedying the disadvantage cast on minorities by past prejudice- not because it would benefit the majority, but simply because it was righting a recognized wrong. It was creating a fair grading rubric that would give credit for maintaining a heavier course load that included not only academics but also the lingering and ongoing effects of racial discrimination.
As a student of color, I want us to reach a common understanding in our discourse. That is, the benefits of diversity are the character traits required to truly appreciate diversity: humility, self-awareness, curiosity and compassion. Let’s teach these things so that we can collectively appreciate the diversity of challenges that add merit to achievement. The best teaching tool? I don’t think it’s us people of color. I think Justice Marshall had it right. The tool that will provide truly colorblind opportunity in our society is honest recognition of the ways that our past continues to affect our society today. Let’s fix our understanding and our discourse so that affirmative action is free to get us there without constant criticism.