Mar 262008
 
Authors: Seth Anthony

Here in Colorado, no matter who the presidential nominees are, we’ll be debating issues of race this election season.

On our ballot this November will be a measure to end all affirmative action programs in the state.

The measure has qualified for the ballot following several weeks in which Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has confronted concerns about statements made by Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of his church.

Several excerpts from Wright’s sermons have been played ad nauseum as evidence that he – and, by implication, Obama as well – is hateful and harbors resentment towards whites.

Wright’s delivery and style may be unfamiliar to many, but anyone who’s taken a history course understands the tremendous and pervasive impact of racist organizations like the Klan – a group that counted Senators and Supreme Court Justices in its ranks – and understands the impetus for the label “United States of KKK-A.”

Anyone who’s read the Bible understands that it does describe a God who calls down judgment – “God damn America” – on even the most favored nation whose leaders act unjustly, as America’s leaders did in the era of segregation.

Jeremiah Wright’s style may be uncomfortable to many people, but these statements that have been repeated day and night on cable news are hardly hateful; they’re just unfamiliar. Wright’s statements reflect the grievances of a group that many of us rarely have to relate to.

The fact that this controversy rises to the level it has, especially among white Americans, underscores the fact that many people routinely underestimate the impact that race still has on American life and society.

We’ve come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and further still since the end of slavery 150 years ago. But concerns, doubts and resentments surrounding race still linger – often because we fail to try to see the world from the perspective of others.

Several years ago, I worked for a few months in an administrative support job at a university in another state. One of the new perspectives I gained from that job was seeing the admissions process from the inside.

Part of my job, working within a very competitive department, was to compile the results of ratings sheets completed by interviewers who met with prospective students. After interviews were finished, I was told to sort the list by average rating and mark the top 20 students as “admitted”; the next 10 or so would be placed on a waiting list. After compiling the list, I would shoot it to the department chair.

She looked at the list of admitees, which was entirely white, save one Hispanic student. Among those who had barely missed the cut, several were minorities: African-American and Asian.

After only a few seconds of looking at the list, my boss said, “No, this won’t do at all.” She circled the names of the minority students close to the top of the waiting list, and told me, “move these students up to the admit list, too.”

I followed her instructions without question, and told myself the passed over white students were now virtually certain to be admitted, because they were now at the very top of the waiting list. But I still felt unclean in doing so.

I have a problem with treating people differently solely based on race. And yet the data – both anecdotal and statistical – still say that African-Americans, for instance, have a steeper road to climb toward success in America. And I have a problem with that, too.

To treat race alone as a deciding criterion for admission or for hiring dehumanizes a person; it says that the thing that matters most about someone is the color of their skin. But to demand that race be ignored entirely also dehumanizes people, by declaring part of their identity, their cultural heritage and their experience to be irrelevant. John F. Kennedy, when campaigning for the Civil Rights Act, declared, “race has no place in American life or law.” Simple platitudes, however, rarely suffice in a complex world.

I don’t pretend to have many answers to the problems of race in America. In fact, I’m plenty conflicted about questions surrounding affirmative action, hiring preferences and admissions practices myself. But I firmly believe that we can’t simply try to ignore race, sweep past injustices under the rug, claim we’re “color-blind” and pretend that it will go away as an issue.

Seth Anthony is a Chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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