Just a few weeks ago, I went down to the Lincoln Memorial with my son to represent JACL at the 2020 Commitment March.
The event was held on the 53rd anniversary of the first March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Probably the most famous line from that speech is “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today, this line is most often quoted to argue against the practice of affirmative action. Such use is a betrayal of King’s full speech.
It’s easy to digest the full idealism of this one line from King as representative of the full speech, and often the full man. A full reading of King’s speech, and his many other speeches and writings, reveals the deeper pain of injustice and the need to eradicate those disparities.
While King aspired to a time when his children, or more realistically his grandchildren, would be judged absent the color of their skin, he knew it would not come without first addressing the injustices of police brutality or voter suppression, also clearly highlighted in that same speech.
And we know these injustices remain today, whether it is the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the disparate voting resources in Black communities that forces wait times of five hours or more to cast a vote or the purging of voter registration rolls in a majority of minority communities.
It is because of these persistent injustices that I took my son to the march on Aug. 28 and why we still need programs like affirmative action to counter the historic and continuing systemic racism in our country.
So long as African Americans face such discrimination from American society, it is impossible to judge anyone independent of color because in every other facet of life, color continues to be a factor.
When color has been a factor in access to education and varying disciplinary standards for Black and other children, to suddenly say the color of one’s skin, which has been a factor up until that point, suddenly does not matter, is a ridiculous proposition.
What is most ironic about the use of this line from King’s speech to oppose affirmative action is that the policies most often opposed such as those used at Harvard, Yale and other highly selective colleges are very much in the spirit of King’s desire to judge based on the content of the individual’s character.
Highly selective schools take on the most nuanced and holistic views of their applicants, taking into consideration factors such as being a first-generation college student, as well as legacy status with alumni parentage.
It is because of this that JACL has and continues to support affirmative action programs and defend them from attacks like the one recently launched by the Department of Justice.
One of the most troubling assertions in the DOJ letter is the complaint that there is no timeframe to end affirmative action policies. As described above, such policies are warranted so long as disparities exist, and we seem to have no timeline to end those. Perhaps, the DOJ should be asked what the timeline is to end police brutality on Black communities?
Having conducted alumni interviews for admissions to my own alma mater, though not as selective as Yale — not too far behind in its unrealistic admissions rates under 10 percent — I have seen how competitive college admissions can be.
A student who seemingly distinguishes himself or herself during his or her interview and presumably with sufficient academic credentials to warrant a referral for an interview is still likely to be rejected.
Opponents to affirmative action and the DOJ view admissions policies, particularly in the consideration of affirmative action as affecting only a small portion of the applicant pool, when in reality, the holistic admissions policies, incorporating affirmative action, assess the full applicant pool.
For the individual applicant, he or she might see himself or herself as competing one-on-one with another applicant accepted over him or her, but in reality is competing with thousands of applicants to the school. There are many more qualified applicants than there are seats in each class at highly selective schools that accept as few as five or six percent of applicants.
Affirmative action is just one of many factors in the admissions process at highly selective colleges and universities. It is one factor that can be used to counter the impact of centuries of discrimination that do have a cumulative effect.
It is one attempt to counter the shackles our society continues to place on people of color, especially African Americans.
Perhaps there will come a day when the color of one’s skin can be eliminated as a factor, but that day has not come and remains a part of the applicant’s case for college admissions just as it does a part of their everyday existence.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.