The Right of Passage – A Debate on Affirmative Action

Mychal Massie, the straight-talking black conservative writer and talk show host, grew up in rural Pennsylvania and was raised by his mother. He spurned the opportunity to attend an Ivy league university and instead enrolled at a community college, where he became chairman of student government at an all-white school. Today, Massie is an op-ed columnist at WorldNetDaily and a frequent guest on the conservative talk show circuit, voicing provocative stances that have rewarded him the affectionate label, “George Will on steroids.”

Massie’s counterpart in a debate on affirmative action held last Thursday at the Lobero Theatre was Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and consummate spokesperson for the American multicultural movement. The grandson of Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii, Takaki recalls having an unimpressive high school record until a teacher took him under his wing and helped him get accepted to The College of Wooster, in Ohio. Takaki, who is the author of “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” says his college acceptance was an “early form of affirmative action.”

The juxtaposition of these two men’s similarly humble backgrounds made for compelling back-and-forth action as each speaker established contrasting interpretations of their upbringings in White America and how they relate to the subject of racial equality.

Massie credits his success to hard work and the substantive possibilities created by living in a meritocracy. Those two values are debased, he argues, when programs such as affirmative action take effect. He says the program “engenders inferiority” in the people who take advantage of it and “breeds resentment” among those excluded by it. Furthermore, the program displaces responsibility where it inevitably belongs – the home and the individual – and mistakenly “makes governments and institutions responsible for instilling incentives,” he argues.

“To base a right of entrance on race is wrong,” Massie says.

Takaki agrees hard work is essential, but says it must be properly rewarded by “leveling the playing field.” Massie’s rise to success, the professor asserts, is the exception to the rule. He cites hundreds of cases in which Latino and black students with formidable high school credentials were turned away from UC Berkeley because their grades and SAT scores were “not competitive” enough with other applicants. The problem, Takaki says, is that college administrators are denying qualified students the opportunity to attend based on “artificial and fraudulent measures of merit,” which includes SATs and grade point averages. Because of these cases, he believes, “something needs to be done.”

Takaki proposes raising taxes to increase opportunities for poor minority students wanting to attend colleges and reversing Proposition 209, the decade-old state legislation that prohibits governments and institutions from “discriminating against or giving preferential treatment” to anyone based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”

“If we do believe in fairness and in democracy, then we put our money where our mouth is,” Takaki says.

Massie says that’s false reasoning since educational success is not correlated to government spending, citing a study that found that Washington D.C. had one of the country’s worst literacy rates though it outspends other American cities in education. In addition, Massie argues Takaki’s proposal only furthers the misguided notion that all American kids should go to college.

“To argue that you must go to college to be successful does an injustice to those who decided not to attend,” he says. “Not everyone is cut out for college, but everyone is cut out for a career.”