How do you feel about affirmative action? Recently someone was telling me about a college graduate who was at the top of his class. He was a straight-A student. He applied to eight top medical schools for admission and was turned down by every one. According to the person telling me the story, the reason was because he was "white."

My response to the story was, "That’s a shame." Well it is a shame when you consider how hard this individual worked only to be denied. If that were your son or daughter, how would you feel?

Affirmative Action policies were passed in 1961 under President Kennedy. The policy upheld the idea that projects financed with federal funds "take affirmative action" to ensure that hiring and employment practices were free of racial bias. Most states still uphold affirmative action policies.

To me affirmative action was created so everyone could begin on the same starting line—it’s kind of like running a race. I can recall telling my Red Lake students that life is like a race and if you want to finish the race and be successful, you first have to run the race. You can’t be just a bystander and expect to reap the rewards of those that choose to run. Unfortunately for Native Americans, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics, they have to start 10 yards behind everyone else. Why?

The boy I spoke about earlier was suffering for the actions of our forefathers and their forefathers and, in some cases, even the actions of today's Americans. If, for example, after the Emancipation Proclamation, all African Americans would have been treated as equals, events like the Tulsa massacre may not have happened. Jim Crow laws would not have passed. Dixiecrats would not have formed. There would have been no need for Brown v. Board of Education, where Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “Separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal” and violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

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Ruby Bridges walked to school escorted by four federal marshals 61 years ago as a white mob hurled insults at her. Ruby was 6 years old and was to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. As the first Black student to attend the school, Bridges carried integration on her small shoulders. The court reasoned that the segregation of public education based on race instilled a sense of inferiority that had a hugely detrimental effect on the education and personal growth of African American children. We now know that to be true not only for African Americans but for all students of color.

The mistreatment of American Indians has been well documented from the breaking of treaties to mistreatment of young Native Americans placed in boarding schools. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was unnecessary and that, too, made it more difficult for the Japanese and Asians to be on equal footing with the majority culture. As we know from recent actions, the maltreatment of Asians still exists. We can find reasons also why women still fight for their rights. Hispanics also face an uphill battle for equality.

The wide gap between people of color and white people continues to exist in school achievement tests and graduation rates. It has never been equal, not even close with one exception.

I recently had a doctor’s appointment and the nurse who assisted had a very beautiful name. I asked her about it and she said it was Japanese. Then I asked her, "How do you account for the fact that Asians do better on achievement tests and graduate more students at higher rates?" She said, "I think it is cultural." In other words, it is something that is part of them. Asians are expected to do well in school, stay in school (Asians have about a 2% drop-out rate), and graduate (95% of Asian youth graduate.)

What is it about Asian culture that propels them to finish the race ahead of everyone else even when they start 10 yards behind the starting line? Asians appear to be "protected" from many of the usual factors that negatively affect educational outcomes like poverty and drugs while receiving an enhanced benefit from their Asian heritage. The Japanese nurse was correct, it must be part of their heritage, part of their culture.

What if we made education part of everyone’s culture? How would we do this? And what do I mean by making it part of the culture?

We fly flags on Memorial Day and Fourth of July. It’s part of our culture. We celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It’s part of our culture. We like football and baseball and eating a good hot dog. It’s part of our culture. We enjoy parades, pizza and powwows and picking flowers. It’s part of our culture. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are special to young and old. It’s part of our culture. Eating tacos and celebrating birthdays hold a special place in our lives.

Yes, all of the above are fun and easy to do unlike attending school for 12 years, which most kids do not see as a fun and an easy thing to do. For this reason we need to make high school graduation part of everyone’s culture just like it is for Asian Americans. Recently the Red Lake Tribal Council signed a proclamation in support of the 100% initiative and all graduates. They joined Bemidji, Blackduck, Northome, Gonvick, Clearbrook and Kelliher for passing similar proclamations. Statements like this are exactly what needs to be done to help make graduation part of each of us.

As parents or grandparents and as citizens who care about young people, we need to talk about graduation in the same way we do about going to a parade, buying a Mother’s Day card, eating a hot dog, going to a powwow or celebrating a birthday. We need to give graduating from high school the same quality of thought, word and deed that we do for trick-or-treating or hugging your grandma. When we do this, education will become an essential part of everyone’s culture and our graduation rates will soar.

Riddle: A woman soccer player kicked a ball 100 feet. It stopped in midair, reversed direction and returned to her. How could this be? (Answer: She kicked the soccer ball straight up in the air.) Graduating 100% of our youth is not that difficult. We can reverse directions and have everyone graduate if we all just try to make it part of our culture.

100%

Thanks to all of those cities which passed a proclamation in support of graduation and our goal of 100%. Also, thanks to Country Side Pest Control and Four Pines Bookstore for joining over 400 other supporters of Project Graduate.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.