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Students Benefit From Multicultural Experiences

By Zach Seal
The Detroit Free Press
March 28, 2003

When I was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, an African-American student told us during a class discussion that she had been turned down for a job as a waitress at a prestigious beach club. Her interviewer told her she was intelligent and charismatic, but that her skin color didn't portray the club's all-American image.

Amazingly, the interviewer was black himself. A vigorous discussion ensued about the definition of racism. This is one example of a phenomenon I experienced throughout my undergraduate years.

During lecture discussions, I noticed that minority students shared more insight about issues such as job discrimination and inner-city poverty than white students did. A likely explanation is that American minorities of all classes are more likely to face racial prejudice than whites are. Six years later, I hardly recall the theories and models of social relations explained in the required readings. But the personal experiences and view points of students from diverse backgrounds resonate with me, and I vividly recall the personal stories they shared in class.

My experience in UCLA's diverse community in the mid-1990s -- when race was still one factor for admissions there -- showed me the educational wisdom behind the University of Michigan's race-sensitive admissions policies, which are being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proponents traditionally argue that racial preference programs "level the playing field" by counteracting past racial injustices and current obstacles facing minority high-school students. This argument implies that affirmative action benefits only minorities. It does not, however, address the full impact of affirmative action on college campuses.

A diverse campus enhances the social development and educational experience for white students and, indeed, for all college students. Witnessing the race relations -- and occasional tensions -- among students in my classes taught me important lessons.

On the last day of one class that dealt with racism in society, a white student stood up and ranted to the non-white students: "Get over it. Take responsibility. Stop using perceived racism as a crutch." After class, the African-American and Latino students lined up outside the classroom's exit door to wait for the student who had harangued them.

One by one, the minority students praised the white student for his gumption and thanked him for his honesty and openness. Though I don't share the attitude of that white classmate, witnessing that exchange was a powerful learning experience. It later gave me the courage to engage minorities in discussions about racial tensions. I know they grapple with these issues, like I do, and may be interested in my perspective.

In addition, students who learn to talk comfortably with people of different ethnicities have an advantage in the job market. Businesses covet employees who can help them target racial minority markets in the United States and take part in the global marketplace. That's why dozens of the largest American companies, including Microsoft, 3M and PepsiCo have told the Supreme Court they support race-conscious admission policies in support of the U-M affirmative action cases.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court discussion drove home the importance of diverse experience for strengthening intellectual discourse. During oral arguments about the First Amendment protection for cross-burning, Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African-American justice, said that cross-burning served no other purpose than to induce fear and intimidation.

The other justices listened to Thomas with "rapt attention," the New York Times reported. They apparently gave special credence to Thomas's perspective. Similarly, Justice Thurgood Marshall decades earlier contributed his personal experiences as an African American to the court's deliberations in civil rights cases.

Diversity is also valuable at the graduate school level. Today, I am studying in the city and regional planning program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My program has 68 white, four minority and four international students.

Many students in my program abhor Wal-Mart and other "big box" retailers, saying that they promote urban sprawl and tarnish the landscape with unimaginative structures and huge parking lots. But inner city African-American and Latino communities that need jobs often welcome the stores.

Minority students, whether or not they come from low-income backgrounds, seem to be more in tune with this perspective than white students. Having more minority students in the program would enrich our discussions, especially for those of us looking to improve distressed cities with high minority populations.

Young people seeking to expose themselves to new ideas and different ethnicities during their college years should have the same opportunity I had.

Affirmative action may or may not be justified because it counteracts past racial injustices. Affirmative action is absolutely justified because it counteracts the present lack of diversity on our college campuses.

Zach Seal has a sociology degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.

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