The University Record, October 28, 1998

Young urges students to think critically about affirmative action

By Jane R. Elgass

We all are benefited by the existence of the general communities in which we live and work, and by the smaller communities within them. However, the current affirmative action debate has caused divisiveness in many of those communities, some as small as a classroom or residence hall floor.

What is important at this point in the debate is to “critically engage the topic and relate it to your education,” Alford A. Young Jr. told a Michigan Union primarily student audience last week. Affirmative action is not just a matter of numbers, said Young, who is an assistant professor of sociology and of Afroamerican and African studies. “We all need to see how we are players in this process and why [affirmative action] matters at the University of Michigan and in society. You need to think critically about what you are hearing.”

Speaking at times from personal experience, Young addressed a standing-room-only audience in the Union’s Pond Room Oct. 21 as the opening presenter at a series of “Two Days of Action in Defense of Affirmative Action” events sponsored by United for Affirmative Action, a coalition of U-M groups and individuals.

Identifying the classroom as one form of a community, Young noted that the dynamics can be affected by who has access. “We hope it’s competent students and faculty who can help shape a positive learning experience.” That, however, creates a debate on defining competence. “The downside of that debate,” he said, “is that competence is tied to levels of performance and we lose sight of the individual.”

Scholastic Achievement Test scores, Young noted, account for only 17 percent of possible variants among individuals, all related to academic performance. Affirmative action, he asserted, addresses some of the remaining 83 percent, and leads to the “creation of dynamic, vibrant learning experiences,” with each individual bringing a different amalgamation of qualities to the experience.

Some critics of affirmative action, Young noted, say they are being disadvantaged, but Young asserts that one “must have a sense of history to make sense of today. Historical processes help shape what we are today, even thought we may not realize it.”

Young, an urban sociologist who focuses on the urban experience, cited the construction of Levittowns on Long Island and in New Jersey and Pennsylvania following World War II as an example. Levittowns offered housing at low rates, establishing home ownership as a viable option for Americans with a $1 down payment. African Americans, however, were not allowed to buy homes in the Levittowns.

A student in one of Young’s classes, who had grown up in one of the Levittowns and attended an elite high school, was not aware of the background of the housing projects. “She had no sense of how ‘privilege’ factored in her life,” Young said. “We all are products of history and social circumstance,” which sometimes offer privilege, and sometimes put us at a disadvantage. “As critical thinkers, we must pay attention to this,” Young stated.

Again viewing the classroom as a community, Young noted that none of his classes has had a majority white population, generally breaking down to about 30 percent white, 30 percent Black and 30 percent international. “This makes for interesting dynamics the first few weeks.” The makeup of these classes, however, eventually leads to an environment that provides an opportunity for the students “to take seriously important issues, not just the topics of the day,” he explained. “The educational experience is richer by having students from different environments.”

The debate over affirmative action now is steeped in the university setting, Young pointed out, and this poses a potential crisis for the educational process as institutions strive to prepare students for a multicultural society.

“Test scores and measures do matter,” Young said, “but we must take into account that people matter.”

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