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Trip to McDonald's shatters racial naivete

Growing up in the conservative, white world of west Michigan, my coming-of-age experience with race was limited. Aside from being good friends with a bi-racial girl when I was a four-year-old, I did not know any African-Americans when I was growing up, and when I attended my 95 percent white high school, that did not change much.

My few experiences, and my racial enlightenment, came from travels to cities--usually Detroit or Chicago--where I would meet black people en masse. But until I was 15, I did not make the connection that there was something different about the view of the world through my eyes and the view through the eyes of an African-American. It's embarrassing to admit.

At age 15, what seems like an eternity ago given how much my experiences at Duke changed my racial perception, I was visiting Detroit for a trip with my high school business club. The Renaissance Center was crawling with wanna-be business leaders, too small for the shoulder-pads in their sport-coats. In the lower-level mall/food-court pavilion, we would crowd McDonald's every morning for breakfast. I noticed, for the first time in my life, the segregation of that urban McDonald's. On one side, a bunch of white people in suits complaining about the help; on the other, black people behind the counter toiling as fast as possible in order to make enough McMuffins to satisfy the comfortable, yet whiny, masses.

That day I began to think about racial disparity in earnest. In a city often praised nationally for its opportunities for minorities--Detroit has produced a number of black mayors and business leaders--it seemed as though the American dream of working hard and getting ahead was some kind of sadistic joke. Everyone at that McDonald's was busting his tail, but the possibility for advancement for all but a handful was non-existent.

I'm not proud of my formerly naive worldview or that I took for granted the racial disparity that dominated America's urban kingdoms. But--and this is where liberal intellectuals and political strategists from the coasts get things wrong--my experience is much like that of other young men in middle America. Outside of the urban centers of the Midwest, Northeast and West, experiences with race are largely dictated by what is in the media, or, worse, the prejudices of those who came before us. Another free hint for political strategists: Most of America is in the middle.

Affirmative action in education, one of the most divisive issues in America, is something that most middle Americans do not understand. This is not because they do not care or because of some kind of inherent, lingering racism in the hearts of rural and suburban white people, but because a majority of the country will grow up, live and die ignorant of the rest of America. (The same can be said of people who spent their entire lives in Manhattan or Texas, or any other insular region.) The merits of diversity are lost on people in middle America because its benefits are not apparent.

A couple of years ago, the University of Michigan was sued by several white students who were denied admissions to either the prestigious undergraduate program or to the even more prestigious law school. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared May 15 that the University of Michigan Law School's admissions policy was constitutional, a reversal from the decision of a lower federal court. Although the appellate verdict is still out on the undergraduate case, the issue of selling the University of Michigan's policy to middle America, not to mention to Michigan residents, is almost as great a concern as the verdict.

Former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger was the linchpin in making sure that Michigan was a university that reflected not only the diverse makeup of the state, but also sought to promote the values of diversity in education. His noble goal and Michigan's constitutional policy (unless the conservative-activist U.S. Supreme Court decides to ignore stare decisis) are held with high regard by the intellectual community, but for the folks in middle America the policy is tough to understand. How do you communicate a value of diversity when most Americans grow up in homogenous communities? The selling point needs to come from something that middle Americans understand--the rewarding of hard work.

I am currently on the waitlist at the University of Michigan's Law School. A colleague of mine remarked to me, "If you were black, you would have gotten in." He may have been right, but he was missing a key point of affirmative action. The system is designed not just to promote diversity, but to reward relative hard work. Someone who did not have all of the opportunities I was lucky enough to be born into and who achieved as much has worked harder and deserves that spot.

The battle over affirmative action in education, and in society, will only appear to be won or lost in the courts. The real struggle is to find understanding in America for a program that most people think has lost its urgency. The way to do that is not through agonizing discussion of principle and utopia. The way is through a middle American ideal: hard work.

Martin Barna, Trinity '02, is a former editorial page editor and former film editor of The Chronicle.

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