Focus on Issues: in Tackling Affirmative Action, Group Considers Student Views

The cab driver taking Ari Alexander to his internship did not like that a white teen-ager was going to teach in a predominately black public school in West Philadelphia.

“Oh, you’re going to help the black kids,” the black cab driver said, accusing the University of Pennsylvania sophomore of heaping “pity” on the students in the projects.

Undeterred, Alexander continues his work helping to teach in an 8th grade class at the McMichael School.

“This isn’t pity. It’s social justice. A fundamental Jewish concern,” Alexander said in an interview during a conference here this week that brought hundreds of Hillel college students together with Jewish activists from across the country at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Many of the college students at this week’s conference are confronting race relations head on at their campuses. Issues pertaining to black-Jewish relations and acceptance of minority students have resurfaced with new vigor in recent years.

The students’ experiences are helping the JCPA to shape its policies on race in America as the umbrella group of Jewish community relations councils and national Jewish groups reaches the mid-point of its 2-year study on race relations.

For more than 20 years, JCPA, and its predecessor agencies, maintained a position of support for affirmative action.

In the wake of President Clinton’s race initiative, the group last year decided to review its stance.

According to a preliminary report delivered at the conference this week, the group has found continued support among local Jewish communities for affirmative action programs where race is among a set of criteria, said Karen Senter, JCPA’s director of domestic concerns.

The group has found that the issue has attracted a lot of attention. It’s “a way for communities to pull in new people,” said Senter, who is the lead staff person on the race initiative.

“There’s a very strong recognition that we need to listen to our young people,” said Senter.

If they do, JCPA leaders are likely to hear support for some form of affirmative action.

“A lot of our families, having made it as second-generation Americans” without the help of affirmative action programs, “say why shouldn’t everybody else. I disagree with that,” Alexander said.

Despite seemingly widespread support for programs that help minority students, young Jewish delegates here made a distinction between race-based programs and those based on socio-economic disadvantage.

Some white Jewish students say they have been stung by college acceptance procedures that favored minorities with lower grades.

Jasmine Sicula, a 19-year-old Tulane University freshman from New York City, did not apply to California state schools fearing that she would be rejected because of their affirmative action programs. California has since passed a controversial referendum that eliminated race-based admissions policies.

In fact, Sicula said she believes she was rejected from the University of Michigan while minorities with lesser qualifications were admitted.

She’s glad that there is now a lawsuit challenging Michigan’s affirmative action program. “I believe in being qualified,” Sicula said.

Still, Sicula, like a dozen of her peers interviewed during the conference, said she is not against affirmative action.

“I’m not anti-affirmative action in the real sense of what it should have been: if equal take the person of color.”

Many of these students believe that affirmative action should shift from race- based criteria to socio-economic factors.

Nava Mizrahi, a second-year student at Canada’s University of British Columbia, believes that the major problem lies in the educational system. Mizrahi, most concerned with “gender inequality” in the classroom, wants to see women afforded better opportunities.

“But the best person for the job should get the job,” she said.

Almost all students who spoke about affirmative action believe that better public education is the key.

“Do not punish those sealed off at 4-and 5-years old in the ghetto,” Alexander said.

All of the students interviewed said they are concerned that opposition to traditional affirmative action programs could lead to more confrontations between black and Jewish students.

Ben Schein, a University of Penn junior, held a forum at the conference to encourage other students to work to improve race relations on campus.

More than 20 students heard Schein talk about a spring break trip to New York City he organized for 16 black and Jewish students.

While there the group visited a Harlem Church and an Upper West Side synagogue.

The trip led to greater understanding between the students, Schein said, adding that he understands “a lot better how a black person can support Louis Farrakhan,” the Nation of Islam leader whose anti-Semitic remarks have prompted outrage among many people.

But Schein admits that they have just begun to scratch the surface to revive the positive Jewish-black relations of an earlier generation.

“We need to do better,” he said.

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