The University Record, November 26, 1997

Teleconference panelists explore race relations in higher education

By Kerry Colligan

On Nov. 19, the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives sponsored a viewing of "Race Relations in Higher Education: A Prescription for Empowerment and Progress," a video teleconference broadcast to colleges and universities throughout the United States.

In a friendly, but often one-sided discussion of the role racism, the educational system and language play in defining affirmative action, six panelists talked about the future of affirmative action and the prospect that recent developments could lead to a substantial reduction in non-white enrollment in post-secondary institutions.

"The entire affirmative action debate is shrouded in a high vocabulary halo," panelist Stanley Fish, professor of English and law at Duke University, said of the conservative right-wing efforts to dismantle affirmative action programs. "The moment you hear someone talking on a higher level, you know the real subject has disappeared."

The real subject, according to panelist Katya Gibel Azoulay, chair of Africana studies at Grinnell College, is both race- and class-based discrimination in distribution of educational opportunities, allocation of resources and admissions procedures. "Emphasis should be on the working class. Their silent backlash to affirmative action questions who benefits from these programs."

Unfortunately, the assault on affirmative action will lead to increased reliance on standardized test scores, stated Christopher Edley Jr., professor of law at Harvard University. That increased reliance only reaffirms the disproportionate allocation of educational resources in this country, he said.

As an example, panelist Juan Francisco Lara, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of California, Irvine, noted the beneficiaries are not those most in needăless than 2 percent of rural California high school students are academically eligible for college in the California state system.

Yet, the panelists as a group emphasized the importance of moving the discussion beyond test scores and hard resources. Another facet of the affirmative action debate is the language in which it is discussed.

"People on the right will win the affirmative action argument because they have been so successful in defining the terms of the debateămerit, equal opportunity, turning away from the systematic effects of historical perspective," Fish said. Because politics and language are "inextricably linked," said Sumi Cho, associate professor of law at Depaul University, it is much more difficult to effectively argue for affirmative action based on the history of racism in America.

The panel devoted little time to posing solutions or action plans, but seemed to be in agreement with Edley's summary statement: "I'm very worried that people will declare affirmative action dead before its time, whereas the 'other side' is declaring it every day." The fact is, affirmative action is still good law in most states, he said [excepting California, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana].

Raymond Windbush, professor of social justice at Fisk University, joined the other panelists. Kojo Nnamdi, host for "Evening Exchange," a politically-oriented news radio show in Washington, D.C., moderated the discussion.