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Minority Students Must Grasp The Future

Boys and girls of color, junior high and older, good students and struggling ones, what does the University of California regents’ decision on affirmative action mean to you?

I’ll tell you what it means. It’s time to sit up, grow up and take notice.

Sure, I know, the regents did a lousy thing, kowtowing to Pete Wilson’s political machine like they did. They let him rush them into a decision on affirmative action just because Wilson, who’s running for president but lacked national exposure, said they must.

They could have improved affirmative action, made it work more fairly, but no, they didn’t do that.

Notice that no one’s attacking preferential treatment for the athletes or the children of alumni. Notice that no one’s questioning why student-body presidents earn college-admission Brownie points when such positions often boil down to high school popularity contests. Nor is anyone questioning preferences for veterans, many of whom did nothing more heroic than straighten out their post-adolescent, messed-up lives.

No, those people vote. Wilson wouldn’t dare offend them.

But African Americans and Latinos are a different matter. We don’t vote - or, not in large enough numbers to worry Wilson.

Still, it IS weird that Wilson appointee and friend Ward Connerly was able to get so many of his fellow regents all riled up about affirmative action just in time to jump-start Wilson’s presidential bid. Couldn’t they see what all that huffin’ and puffin’ was about? I mean, here’s a governor who hasn’t shown up for a regents’ meeting since 1993 and suddenly they snap to attention like he’s the Grand Poobah of higher education? What a bunch of wimps.

But that’s a done deal now, so let’s get on with it, right? Your future looms and with it this question: What’s a young person of color caught in today’s “divide and conquer” backlash against minorities to do?

Plenty. The secret is, you’ve got to grab yourself a future before they hand you whatever crumbs are left.

Stay on top of things. Get good grades. Insist on aiming for college no matter what that career counselor says. Beg your parents and neighbors to fight for better elementary and secondary schools (where equal-opportunity programs really should be) Then, later on, get in there and do it yourself.

What? You’re just a kid and the public schools in your ‘hood are falling apart? Your third grade classroom is always out of writing paper? Don’t expect anyone to change that just now, honey. Women, African Americans and Latinos didn’t vote last year, so nobody listens to us any more. In the political arena, business interests and angry white males rule. You’re on your own.

The sad thing about this attitude - saying to heck with vast numbers of youngsters who aren’t making it, blaming them - is what it breeds.

Beginning in first grade and growing geometrically, our educational system is leaving huge numbers of low-income, underachieving students behind. As those populations swell and we give up on finding ways to teach and reach them, the result will be a tragic loss of human potential.

The endgame will be a dwindling pool of skill, talent, leadership and taxes threatening our national prosperity. The problem is NOT that vast numbers of minorities are cheating other Americans out of seats at the local university.

If this were true, where are all these opportunity-stealing minorities anyway? Ever walk into a Fortune 500 company and feel overwhelmed by all the people of color running the place? Check out the campus quad lately? It makes you wonder: Have Wilson or Connerly ever been inside a UC classroom?

This is why outgoing UC President Jack Peltason and every last chancellor was against abolishing race-based affirmative action. They know the numbers: African Americans account for just 4 percent of the student population in the nine-campus UC system; Latinos, 13 percent. Hardly a takeover of the American Dream.

And when they talk about “merit,” know this:

The 14 regents who voted with Wilson can say they voted for a color-blind society all they want. But what they did, really, was vote against affirmative action as though removing race as a factor would leave students tidily lined up based on merit and nothing else. Like merit is a just and measurable thing, easily calculated and dispensed according to a system we all know and accept.

For what does merit mean when minority students still get tracked into vocational classes because of the color of their skin? What is merit when an athlete’s GPA is rigged to keep him on the team? What is merit when certain schools prepare students for college entrance exams and others do not?

Merit is not so objective as some like to think. Where opportunities cease, the meaning of merit shrivels up and dies.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service

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