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Michael Bettencourt
Affirmative Action Reaction

September 2013

I hate to say this — admitting it seems like such a defeat of character these days — but, yes, I, a middle-aged, balding, white male, benefitted from affirmative action.  How, you might ask (if you believe the reigning Republican theology), did such a perversion of the natural order ever occur?

The year was 1971, my senior year in public high school in a small city in western Massachusetts.  I did well in school — good  grades, Honor Society, National Merit Scholar, lots of sports, active in the drama society.  But my SAT scores hardly rang the bell, in large measure because our guidance office and faculty expected us all to go to UMass Amherst instead of Amherst College and did little to nothing to prepare us for the test.  No coaching classes here, no Princeton Review or Kaplan. Just come in on a Saturday, bring your No. 2 pencils, finish the test, and then get ready for the game that night.

In steps Dr. Rafferty.  One night I get a phone call from Dr. Rafferty, a local dentist who had graduated from the Harvard Dental School many molars ago.  Harvard College had asked him to do some academic scouting in the area. He had been to the school, seen my records, and bluntly asked me if I would like to go to Harvard.  Without a moment's hesitation I said yes, and several months, several interviews, and reams of application materials later, I was in.

It seems that Harvard College had charged itself with an affirmative action mandate (though I'm sure they didn't phrase it that way): to increase their geographic diversity by looking for candidates in places they normally overlooked.  That's why my name popped up.  In their usual review of applications, Harvard would never have given me a first glance: I was no different, on paper, than a bazillion other supplicants at the crimson gate.  Yet because the admissions office decided to cast a wider net with a smaller mesh, they gave someone a chance who would never have been admitted to the club if judged simply on the merit of objective  scores and balance sheets.  To use a science analogy, because they decided to scan the heavens in infra-red rather than their standard visible light, they found new objects to study and thus expanded the diversity of their knowledge.

Contrary to what most people believe, affirmative action began as an effort to erase racial and gender preferences by broadening the pool of potential applicants beyond white males with certain pedigrees — that's why it was called "affirmative."  In other words, the purpose of affirmative action was not to exchange one bigotry for another but instead to find people whose merits, under the old search procedures, might not have come up on the screen. 

Seen in this light, affirmative action is based on the solid American democratic principles of equality of opportunity and the abolition of social injustice.  Why does this make people nervous and say silly things (like certain Supreme Court justices) that we live in a color-blind society and that all we need to do to end discrimination is to stop discriminating?  Is that all it really takes?  Then what were all those decades of civil rights battles for?

I am what affirmative action is about: an effort to include those who usually don't get included in the rituals where power, money, education, and chances get handed around.  If everyone deserves a fair shot, but everyone is not getting one, then someone has to step in and, as Captain Picard would say, make it so.  If we as citizens forgo this responsibility, if we as citizens don't demand that our government defend equality and justice in our name, if our President (affirmative action beneficiary that he is) doesn't mount a vigorous defense of affirmative action on its own merits and instead lets the Visigoths have their way, then what's the point of having an American democracy and being an American citizen?  Case closed. 

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Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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