Over a week ago, I was packing my bags to return home to Michigan after spending four months interning at the progressive think tank, Center for American Progress, in Washington D.C. As I nostalgically tucked away my belongings and zipped my suitcases, tears began to roll down my face, stinging my cheeks. After a few minutes, I wiped the tears away and smiled to myself, as I thought about being able see my family and friends for the month before I would be returning to the nation’s capital to work for the Congressional Black Caucus.
As I stepped off the plane after only an hour and fifteen-minute flight, I was hit by a cold gust of wind, a rather fitting reminder of the unpredictable Michigan weather I was able to escape from the past few months. A few days later, I started my mornings as I always do; I reached for my iPhone to turn off my alarm and began to read through The New York Times. While scrolling through the morning’s headlines, my eyes froze on what I did not believe to be true: the United States Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on colleges and universities to use race and ethnicity as one of the factors in admissions review in the case Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. A pit began to form in my stomach as I thought about what the effects of this would mean for minority students like me.
Upon stepping foot in my first political science class at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2011, I quickly realized something — I was only one of a handful of African American students in a lecture of nearly 200 students. Over the course of my time at U of M, I have become even more aware of the racial issues facing one of the world’s most prestigious public universities.
In my political science and philosophy courses, the topic of affirmative action is almost always addressed by professors and graduate student instructors. In one class in particular, Law and Philosophy, the rather touchy subject became even more difficult to discuss when my class was placed in small groups to discuss Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. While it would have been easy to sit back in my chair and remain quiet and let my white peers share their feelings about the university’s history of affirmative action cases, I knew I could not let the class period go by without sharing the feelings I often harbored inside in fear of being labeled the “token” black advocate. I spoke in a matter-of-fact tone as I began to share my opinion on the issue; however, I knew my voice alone would not be a catalyst for change.
Last October, the university’s Black Student Union began a social movement on Twitter, #BBUM, Being Black at the University of Michigan, that quickly began to make local and national news headlines. The BSU’s work has been applauded and supported by many, as its executive board, members, and supporters have been advocates for advancement, accessibility, and acceptance for minority students. Through tireless work with Michigan’s leaders and administrators, the BSU has revitalized the conversation on what steps the university ought to take in order to increase African American and Latino enrollment. Unfortunately, the ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is likely to make the process of increasing minority student enrollment more bureaucratic and complicated.
After reading several news articles about the ruling, I became increasingly frustrated at the majority decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy attempted to turn the conversation away from race and towards a voter’s rights issue, which is not surprising, as many conservatives in the United States take the same approach when discussing public policy issues that disproportionately affect America’s marginalized groups. While I obviously am opposed to the court’s decision, I have made a conscious effort to remain positive and keep a clear perspective.
My experiences of being a black student at Michigan, working at CAP, and being raised in a blended family that is politically-involved in progressive movements, has taught me valuable lessons I will carry with me my entire life. One of the greatest is that when faced with adversity, it is imperative to understand all sides of an issue, regardless of your personal position on it. I have been particularly inspired by the U of M’s Black Student Union for they have worked to tackle an issue impeding many students with courage, grace, and humility.
As I return to campus for my senior year at Michigan, I intend to share the many lessons I learned while in Washington D.C. with my peers in an effort to continue to promote change, despite what happens at the local, state, and federal levels of government. In doing so, I will keep one of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain in the back of my mind, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Photo: President Barack Obama is shown at a campaign event with University of Michigan students last year. AP