Rescue Us: Neighborhoods and Bureaucracies

Detail of a building facade at UCLA. | Photo: DonnaGrayson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

With the election and other potential trouble bearing down on us like superstorm Sandy, I was determined this week to write something nonpolitical and heartwarming -- i.e., the escape and subsequent rescue of my four dogs. On Monday evening the front door to my house was left wide open (we won't say who made that mistake) and the pooches eventually wandered out.

Thanks to a coordinated and sustained effort by several of my neighbors, one of whom is terrified of dogs but sprang into action by getting on the phone to her son in San Diego, all four beasts were corralled and returned home before I drove up. The one who had wandered furthest away is very leery of people and almost impossible to catch, but a quick-thinking neighbor boy followed her at a distance on his skateboard and then lured her back to the block by pretending he had treats in his pocket (he only had a wallet). About the only thing that can override Honey's fear is the possibility of food, and I'm grateful that my neighbor Lawrence intuited that. He's in high school and interested in becoming a zoologist; I'd say he's off to a good start.

After the crisis passed, I was struck by this demonstration of the quality of the community in which I live. I know I tend to be critical and even despairing about Inglewood and about the state of black folks, but this week I was reminded that sometimes that despair is merely academic. Thank goodness.

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That was the story to which I was going to dedicate the entire blog, but then affirmative action intervened. Again. Its likely fate is a chilling story -- nothing heartwarming here -- that just won't go away. Just two weeks ago I said my piece about the University of Texas case pending before the Supreme Court. But in the past several days I've received a flurry of frantic and indignant emails from fellow black UCLA alum about the latest attack on the admissions process at the university that claims race is being unfairly used as a factor.

The criticism is being levied by UCLA law professor Richard Sander who's just published an anti-affirmative book, "Mismatch." Sander is technically not anti-affirmative action -- he likes it, just not the kind that considers race into consideration, which is one way racial conservatives give themselves a kinder, more egalitarian face. The UCLA newspaper the Daily Bruin ran a sympathetic article about the book and its findings, and an even more sympathetic editorial about how the "illegal" use of race in the holistic admissions process must stop (it was followed up by a letter from the Editor this week).

So now black freshmen with stellar grades and test scores being admitted to a tax-supported institution of higher learning are "illegal," like undocumented immigrants. Looks like we're being relegated once again to second-class citizen status, not with "whites only" signs but with sophisticated book-length research that purports to want only what's best for us (actually, that kind of patronizing smells quite a bit like the whites-only rationale of old). Sander is one of a group of many people who, in my opinion, have been obsessed with keeping affirmative action gone in California ever since it was banned by proposition in 1996. You'd think they would have relaxed after that, but these folks have been on the watch for any scrap of evidence that black students are polluting the increasingly rarefied waters of UC, UCLA in particular -- after all, it's been the most applied-to university in the country several years running. They're policing the incidence of Latino admits, too, but make no mistake, it is the notion of black students getting over that is driving the vigilance.

I am getting very tired of people like Sander who sit up nights and years trying to prove that 300 colored freshman admitted out of a class of 10,000 is a social problem. He -- we -- need to look at it from the other end, to turn that outrage around 180 degrees. I have a story for Mr. Sander: I was an affirmative action admit to UCLA in 1979. Though I wasn't the valedictorian at my public high school, my grades and test scores more than qualified me. My letter didn't mention affirmative action, but that's what I assume. I didn't feel "less than" because of it. As one of a handful of black students in the English department at the time, I was isolated but stimulated enough by the material and by the whole experience to do well and to stay competitive; I swiftly figured out the game. One quarter, a famously tough professor of Restoration comedy cited my essay in class as an exemplary piece of critical thinking. I graduated on time with a more than decent GPA. I didn't go to law school, like the majority of English majors did, but I don't doubt I would have been accepted somewhere competitive and done well.

Even if this experience was the exception for black students back then -- as it might be now, as Sander suggests -- my success is a powerful argument for affirmative action, not against it. Again and again, anti-affirmative crusaders insist that AA is doing all of us harm, starting with the hapless colored misfits (or mismatches) who have been mistakenly given a chance to attend a university that they help support with their tax dollars, just like everyone else. I may be a misfit, but I am no mismatch. Though my belief in community and how we need to base policy around that belief is clearly out of step with the times, and has been for a while. I just hope that when my neighbor Lawrence applies to college to pursue his ambition in zoology, he gets exactly what he deserves.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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