At Michigan, Beneficiary of Affirmative Action Is Proud to Defend It
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, December, 2002]
By RICHARD MORGAN
Kristy J. Downing is literally the face of affirmative action at the University
Her face was plastered everywhere on "Vote Kristy!" fliers in May, when Ms. Downing, a second-year law student, ran for a seat in the university's Student Assembly under the banner of the Defend Affirmative Action Party.
She hopes that the cases the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear will put affirmative action on stronger legal ground. But she also has seen a negative side of affirmative action and hopes the cases' prominence will lead colleges to end "tokenism" in how they treat minority students.
Ms. Downing is black. To many students on the campus -- especially among her future lawyer colleagues -- she is That Black Woman Who Is the Big Supporter of Michigan's Controversial Affirmative-Action Policies.
During her campaign, she received an e-mail message from a fellow law-school student, a white male who criticized her party. While Ms. Downing doesn't talk about the specifics of the acid missive, she says that it is a "favorable characterization" to say that the note was "racist." The basic message, she says, was that "I was a horrible person."
The letter devastated her confidence. "It made me feel like all white men felt like that, but that he was the only one who had the nerve to say it," she says. "In my classes, I had this hurdle that I had to mentally jump over. I felt that, when I talked, it had to be intelligent. It had to be correct, perfect, which is difficult enough in law school anyway. So I just didn't speak up or do anything to be noticed for fear of saying anything that might be seen as negative."
Her race, she says, and her visibility in race-related issues have been difficult at Michigan Law, where talk about affirmative action is "taboo."
Even though reporters and the lawyers on both sides of the cases speak about it all the time, students and professors at the law school (at least in private conversations) keep their mouths shut, Ms. Downing says. Students don't want to anger their professors "or make them think that you don't want to work as hard," she says. "They're nice guys, but you don't know what they think -- or even if they agree with the law school's policies," she adds. "I've never had an evenhanded discussion [about affirmative action] here. If I talk about it, everyone is against it. If people are for affirmative action, they don't bring it up."
Racial tensions are heightened, Ms. Downing argues, by a faculty that coddles minority students and treats them like intellectual curiosities. She says that in many of her courses, she and other minority students have never been called on, while other professors regard them as if "they should have the leading answer" on all matters related to race.
That attention can frustrate her at times. "I'm not going to be the leading authority on Johnnie Cochran and O.J. Simpson," she says. "You know? These things that have nothing to do with affirmative action, but which have to do with the same issues of race." While she agrees that minority students do have a unique perspective, she objects to the assumption by professors and students, some of them supporters of affirmative action, that a racial perspective is "the only thing [minority students] can contribute."
She also criticizes professors whose "way of being sensitive to the issue [of race] is to baby [minority students] and hold their hands" and those who "presume I'm not able to handle it as well as others."
Charlotte H. Johnson, an assistant dean at the law school and a graduate of its program, strongly disagrees with that characterization. Ms. Johnson, who also is black, says that she had professors who called on her every day. She also dismisses the idea that minority students' views are sought only on racial issues. Race, she says, "didn't frequently, if ever, even come up [in class]. I just got called on."
Ms. Downing agrees with affirmative action's detractors that the practice significantly changes the pool of admitted students. "I'm almost certain I wouldn't have gotten in the undergraduate level -- and probably not on the law-school level -- without affirmative action," she says.
Ms. Downing scored a 22 on the ACT. By contrast, the middle 50 percent of Michigan's 2001 freshman class earned from 25 to 30 on the test, according to the university's admissions office. Although she did have a high-school grade-point average of 3.89, she received it at what she calls a "failing" school in downtown Detroit that "can't hold a candle, on any level," to the new high school her brother Timothy now attends in Novi, a well-to-do Motown suburb.
As a mechanical-engineering student in Michigan's undergraduate program, Ms. Downing earned a 3.2 grade-point average and scored a 159 out of a possible 180 on her Law School Admission Test. According to court documents in the law-school case, in 1995, 9 of the 12 black applicants with LSAT scores of 148 to 155 and GPA's between 3.25 and 3.49 were accepted. Only one of 91 white applicants with the same qualifications was admitted.
She says she feels angry -- even a bit betrayed -- that the lawsuit is being pursued by a white woman, Barbara Grutter, who was denied admission to the law school in 1997.
"White women have been the biggest benefactors of affirmative action," Ms. Downing says, but to her surprise, "sometimes they'll be the biggest opponents of affirmative action."
Ms. Downing tries her best to give back to her community, coaching softball at her old high school and spending free time on the field encouraging students and parents about college opportunities. Through an "Access to Justice" course at the law school, she also works with the Detroit Alliance for Fair Banking and the city's NAACP chapter to fight unfair lending practices in the city's many poor neighborhoods.
She realizes that some people on the campus see her as just a beneficiary of a minority quota, but, she adds, "People who didn't want African-Americans to succeed in the first place will always see me as just an African-American. There's nothing I can do to please them except feel bad about myself. It's not that they're racist -- they just don't speak from a perspective that includes other viewpoints."
But, since receiving that venomous e-mail message in the spring, Ms. Downing's confidence has blossomed again. She won her seat in the Student Assembly and is now recognized as a force to be reckoned with on the campus.
At times, Ms. Downing can relish the limelight. "When I start speaking in class, it automatically goes to a whole other level because people who are against affirmative action always want to be against me," she says. "If it's just for the sake of entertainment or getting people to war with each other..." She trails off and giggles as she continues: "I try not to use my powers like that."
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