The University Record, January 28, 1998

Colloquium speakers focus on access and opportunity

Theodore M. Shaw (third from left) discussed the "diabolical" tracking of young students by ability as fellow panelists ( from left) Robert B. Porter, Deborah J. Carter, (Shaw), Ronald Takaki, Sylvia Hurtado, Chuck D and facilitator Charles Ogletree Jr. looked on. The colloquium was attended by more than 500 students, faculty and staff. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

When dealing with problems of racial intolerance, Michigan will be the battleground for the 21st century, predicts Charles Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law School professor and facilitator of a Jan. 19 colloquium focusing on affirmative action, one of 103 events held as part of the University's 11th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Ogletree said Michigan "is where we must draw a line in the sand. We have to say, as right thinking, progressive thinking forces, that we will not retreat on the ultimate issue of affirmative action and diversity."

More than 500 students, faculty and staff participated in the four-hour colloquium that included small group discussions on such topics as "Affirmative Action and the Law" and "Affirmative Action and Higher Education."

Explaining how anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 won voter approval in California, Ronald Takaki said referendum promoters successfully pitted groups against one another so that even white women, who traditionally have benefited from affirmative action, voted in favor of Proposition 209.

"We lost the intellectual battle. Those who believed in affirmative action failed to advance a theory of affirmative action. Intellectually we floundered. We couldn't explain it to the American people," added Takaki, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, University of California, Berkeley.

For many white Americans, affirmative action triggers fears about limited access for their children to the nation's elite universities and ultimately success in life, according to the panelists. James S. Jackson, director of the Program for Research on Black Americans, Institute for Social Research, said that with changing demographics in the United States and globalization of the economy, "it is no accident that we see attacks on affirmative action at this point in history. People are scared about who will have access and opportunity."

Race has always masked class differences in the United States, according to Theodore M. Shaw, associate director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Why are educational opportunities at the best universities and colleges so limited? he asked. For Takaki and Sylvia Hurtado, limited access to the most elite institutions results from political choices. In California, tax dollars are being used to build more prisons rather than universities, Takaki said. Hurtado, associate professor of education, noted that for many years California has maintained a hierarchy of institutions that perpetuate economic and social class differences.

Commenting on another hierarchical system, Shaw described the tracking, sorting and labeling of young students by ability as "diabolical." Hobbled by negative labels and an inferior education, Shaw said it is not surprising that many young people become involved in alternative economies, including drugs.

Acknowledging that not everyone may have an opportunity to attend an elite university, rap artist and political activist Chuck D. said students should be prepared to do so. Such preparation "allows you to see all the options, like a skilled running back," he added. Corporations also play a role in the affirmative action struggle, according to panelists.

Deborah J. Carter, deputy director, American Council on Education's Office of Minorities in Higher Education, said business leaders tend to support diversity because they realize that in the not-too-distant future people of color will make up the majority of the work force and of consumers.

Takaki urged Americans to be more critical of corporations, which increasingly are moving their manufacturing operations to other countries to reduce labor costs. Such actions are short-sighted, Takaki added, and frighten workers, who fear for their future.

The notion of unlimited opportunity is a myth, according to Robert B. Porter. It is excessively optimistic, he said, for whites, who are at the pinnacle of the dominant society, to believe that they have some "rightful place in the educational hierarchy. This is a political struggle. There will be casualties," said Porter, associate professor and director, Tribal Law and Government Center, University of Kansas School of Law.

The colloquium concluded with the sharing of summaries of discussions from the small group sessions. Shaw encouraged participants to remain optimistic and reminded students of the important role they can play in explaining issues surrounding affirmative action.