The Opportunity of Cedric Jennings
The 2008 Presidential election -- the outcome of which led to the first election of an African-American leader of this nation, or indeed of any Western power -- and the even more recent arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. while attempting to gain entry to his own home have brought the issue of race back to the forefront of American minds. In truth, however, it never really left. Much of the United States' wealth was built, either directly or indirectly, on the slavery that persisted in the New World for centuries, and the institutionalized racism against and segregation of African-Americans lasted a full century longer. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put an official end to racism in almost every imaginable area of life, is only a few generations old. More importantly, such legal remedies could never hope or even attempt to eradicate racist thoughts and practices, which continue to color society.
In cannot be denied that racism is still prevalent in society today; the extreme stratification that exists along racial lines is observable in almost any urban area in the country. A look at recent census bureau data reveals that poverty levels across the nation show a disproportionate number of African-Americans are living at or below the poverty line, evening comparison with other minorities (U.S. Population Statistics). The same source shows that African-Americans are less likely to be employed or fully employee, and even when they have the same jobs as equivalent white people they make thousands of dollars less per year (U.S. Population Statistics). African-Americans are less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to go to and graduate from college, and do more poorly academically overall (U.S. Population Statistics). All of this leads to some serious questions for a nation that purports to provide equal opportunities for all of its citizens; obviously, this is not the case.
How to address the definite inequalities that exist in United States' policy and society has been a matter of serious debate for many years -- since before slavery was abolished, even. From financial assistance and other aid and educational programs to hosts of anti-discrimination laws and lawsuits, a variety of methods have been suggested and implemented in an attempt to correct the racial divide that persists in this country to this day (Sykes). Affirmative action, a term first lifted out of a 1961 executive order of President John F. Kennedy's, is one of the more controversial of these measures, amounting to an official policy of "reverse discrimination" according to its detractors but providing necessary measures to bring about equality, according to its proponents (Sykes par. 3). Affirmative action and its influence on the stratification of society, especially in regards to the case of Cedric Jennings, will be examined in detail here.
First, however, the structure of opportunity in America must be examined. In order to achieve success and a modicum of financial security and stability, an adequate education is necessary. More and more, this means a college degree, but a high school diploma is absolutely essential. In addition, success in high school is hugely determinative of success in -- and admittance to -- college. Things are not really this simple, however. Some students enjoy distinct economic advantages -- and disadavntages00when it comes to school. This is not limited to colleges and universities, but is observable even in public school -- the students who must work during school to help support a family will have a harder time than those who do not have to. Basically, having money makes it easier to succeed; without adequate financial support, it is difficult to get ahead in America no matter how hard one applies oneself.
As much as this problem exists in high school and earlier public education, it is greatly exacerbated in and by colleges and universities. First, the economic advantages/disadvantages are seen even more sharply here, as real costs for textbooks, living space, etc. rise. Second, and perhaps most important, the increasing attendance and availability of college for the middle class has made it that much more difficult for low income students to gain admittance under fiercer competition. This, in turn, increases the degree of social stratification and widens the economic gap, which as noted above has a distinct racial element. Cedric Jennings, who grew up in Washington D.C.'s inner city an attended a very low performing school, was up against all of these issues when he applied to Brown University.
Despite all of the issues he faced, however, it would not necessarily be right for the University to admit him, or other minority students with similar stories -- over better-qualified white applicants. The level of success that can be expected from the students they admit should be the only consideration for any University, and only the applicants with the most potential should be admitted. This serves the student body as a whole as well as individuals like Cedric Jennings. It is certainly unfair that he did not have the same opportunities in life or in school as other students; the fact that he achieved straight "A" s is certainly a testament to his intelligence and perseverance, but that does not mean he is prepared to attend Brown. If he did not succeed in his first few terms there, it could be very hard for him to face his family and himself. It would also provide no benefit to anyone else. Jennings, like all students, needs to be prepared before he enters an institution of higher learning, regardless of how difficult that preparation is to come by.
Cedric Jennings came from enormous adversity -- a studious young man in a situation that made that difficult, growing up without a father and always just barely scraping by financially, a school that couldn't prepare him for college even when he was one of its highest performers -- and the fact that he achieved the level of success that he did makes him a strong candidate for enrollment. The fact that his SAT scores were a full 250 point below the typical applicant to Brown, however, suggests that he might not succeed at the University if held to the same standard as other students. He has the intelligence to succeed, but not the knowledge, and it is essential to have this foundation before building more learning on top of it.
In the case of Cedric Jennings, the conditions in which he grew up and earned his academic stripes certainly give one pause in evaluating his application for an Ivy League school. If his scores and level fo achievement suggested that he would be able to succeed at Brown, it would absolutely be fair to admit him over "better-qualified" white students. Grades and scores only tell so much about a person, and Cedric Jennings' life says that he is willing to apply himself and work very hard. Many middle- and upper-class suburban white students would not have needed to work as hard in order to get higher scores than Jennings, given the host of other advantages they enjoyed (i.e. stable family lives, increased affluence, etc.). Thus, even a white student with scores better than Jennings might be expected to do more poorly at Brown given their possible lack of perseverance. Yet the issue of Jennings' foundational knowledge still looms large, and ultimately it is upon these grounds that his application to Brown University ought to be considered, for his own sake as well as the school's.
That being said, it is clear that something in the situation must be changed, and changed drastically, in order to avoid future stories like that of Cedric Jennings. Affirmative action, however, does not provide the change at the correct level. Rather than providing equal opportunities later in life,…