Friday, October 27, 2006

Affirmative action and the playground biter

Ben was bitten by a kid at preschool this week. That phone call from Miss Lisa was horrifying, even though the injury wasn’t severe. I felt sick that my child was crying because someone had hurt him. I wanted to make it better. I also felt concern that one of his friends wanted to hurt him. I felt compassion for his parents, too, as they struggled with the thought that their young son could hurt someone else.

The precipitating event was that Haj wanted to get in the car Ben was driving on the playground. At two and a half, sharing is not yet a consistent value. Ben said “No! My car!” “No” and “my” are two of his favorite words lately. Haj tried to crawl through the car window, and when he got within range, he bit Ben’s lower lip to express his displeasure.

As parents, we want to right the wrongs done to our children. I had no desire, however, to punish the other kid, I just wanted the friendship to be repaired and for both of them to thrive. I wanted both Ben and Haj to be equals again, instead of bitee and biter. Of course I want Haj to learn not to bite, but rather to speak his frustration. And I want Ben to learn to share.

I did think, fleetingly, about sending Ben to school the next day with a sign that said: "Don't bite me, my mom's a lawyer."

I imagine James Fett, a lawyer and one of the strongest proponents of Michigan’s Proposition 2, the innocuously-titled “civil rights” proposal, also wants to right a perceived wrong. Mr. Fett feels that his clients, white men, have been unfairly bitten and deprived of rights because affirmative action has given opportunities to non-whites. So he goes around the state trying to drum up support for this misguided notion.

The supporters of Proposal 2 pander to all of our worst fears: a woman will take away a man’s job, a black kid will take your kid’s place at U of M, a Hispanic kid should learn to speak English before they get to our schools. They are just girls, they look funny, and they talk funny. That’s a value judgment for you. This approach focuses on our differences in a negative way and makes us think that somehow those differences mean we’ll be treated differently.

James Fett wants to see us go back to the days when white men didn’t get equal treatment, they got preferential treatment.

Here’s life: sometimes you get bit. There are only so many desks for the incoming class. If you don’t get a seat, you try somewhere else. When I applied to colleges, it was rumored that there was a quota for Midwestern kids at Eastern schools. Apparently, some other Midwesterner kid beat me to Radcliffe and Yale. But I got in at Smith. So I went there. I didn’t think I had a right to take someone else’s seat away at Yale, because they were from New York and I was from Michigan. Life is not about granting all our wishes, or our kids getting everything we want for them. It’s about choices and allocating resources for the greater good.

Affirmative action is less about giving some minority kid a break than it is about leveling the playground for all kids: about taking away an advantage you get just by being born white. All affirmative action has ever been about, in any court case or factory or school is this: as between two equally rated candidates, the one who is non-white or non-male will be given the place. As between two equally rated candidates. It has never been about giving an unqualified person a job because she isn’t white. When we each do better, we all do better.

Ben got bitten, Haj bit him. I can’t change that. When Haj learns not to bite, and when Ben learns to share, they’ll both do better.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve about white privilege since Ben came into my life. Because he is African-American, and I am not, my race consciousness has been sharpened and changed dramatically. I no longer spend days, weeks, years without thinking about race. I am conscious of it every day. Because Ben and I get a certain look from certain people. Sometimes people actually say things. Cruel, unthinking things, like, “My niece and her husband adopted two crack babies.” They say this because Ben is black, so they think he came from a crack mom, and I rescued him because I am white.

And they were making those assumptions about him because he is black from the time he was born!

Nothing could be further from the truth. His birth mom was a responsible mom, who chose me to raise Ben. She wasn’t a crack addict, or a neglectful parent. She made a sacrifice I was not willing to make: she chose to live her life without Ben so that I could live mine with him. She chose me, a single, white, middle-aged woman, to raise her son. We met before Ben was born. We talked about race, about our families, about raising children, about men, our mothers and politics.

I picked Ben’s school because there were teachers who were African-American, Caucasian, Indian and Japanese-American. Haj, his best friend, is Japanese-American. I made decisions based on race, because I wanted a life with more diversity, and I wanted Ben to grow up knowing people of many races, religions and abilities.

Science has actually shown that workers in a diverse workplace are more productive, that companies who can sell to all sorts of people make more money. And so the big companies now recruit in schools where diversity is a value, like the University of Michigan. They don’t go much anymore to California schools to recruit, because Proposition 209 there killed diversity a decade ago. Ward Connerly got that poison passed there, then he turned his money to Michigan to spread his hate. Don’t let him bite Michigan’s kids.

Michigan has the third highest number of hate crimes in the nation. No wonder we were ripe for something like the poison of Proposal 2.

We have to learn to live among each other, not just tolerate each other. We can’t be colorblind, we have to move to an appreciation of each other’s differences. Our children have to play with each other, we need to welcome people of different colors and shapes and sizes into our families. We have to stop biting each other on the playground, and instead learn to share. We need to talk to each other about race, religion and honor our differences. We have to come to the place where we understand that Ben’s pain is also Haj’s pain, and that when Haj improves, Ben improves.

Proposal 2 only increases the pain between us. Vote no, for Haj and Ben. Vote no for your daughters, mothers and sisters. Vote no for yourself, because a life where you aren’t afraid of someone just because they have a different color of skin is a better life.

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