African-American Student Fights for Affirmative Action

A Profile on 21-Year-Old Tristan Armand Taylor

Tristan Taylor
Tristan Armand Taylor was arrested while a senior at Mackenzie High School in Detroit, Michigan. He was handcuffed, read his rights, taken down to a Detroit precinct, and booked for protesting against the city of Detroit’s budget cuts in education.

While many high school seniors worry about graduating, SATs, college, and the senior prom, why was this young African-American honors student getting arrested while advocating for a school system he was soon to exit?

“I saw firsthand how education funding for my school district was being cut and denied,” said Tristan. “For me, it was a question of opportunity for everybody — all students regardless of what school district you came from. Why are students in the suburbs going to schools where there are music and arts programs, and a computer for every student, while in schools in the ghetto basic programs are being cut?"

At an early age Tristan says he witnessed the inequality of American schools. From ages five through 14, he was bussed to integrated schools in the suburbs. However, high school was a completely different world.

"My high school was in the inner city," said Tristan. "Unlike my former schools which were pretty mixed racially, my high school's student body was largely African-American. It was a major culture shock for me. The differences in education, after-school and sports programs was an eye-opener. I wanted to know what we the students did to deserve schools that resembled battle zones. It was then I drew a series of conclusions about society and prejudice."

Looking for a way to make a difference, Tristan ran for and was elected to the Detroit City Wide Student Council, and founded a high school chapter of the civil rights group, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). As an activist on both of these bodies, Tristan led rallies in support of race- and gender-based preferences in affirmative action.

“We live in a very racist and sexist American society, where one’s race and gender determines what opportunities you’ll have,” said Tristan. “There needs to be conscience policies to offset those inequalities. And with groups like the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) trying to get affirmative action banned, the time to ardently defend it is now!”

This year, Tristan is on leave from Eastern Michigan University to work as a full-time BAMN organizer. Like other BAMN organizers, he's unpaid, but dedicated to a movement that he believes is as pivotal as the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Last fall he served as the high school coordinator for BAMN’s successful campaign to defeat Proposal E, a referendum which would have made permanent the state takeover of Detroit schools. Despite the fact that Proposal E had the backing of the mayor and an ad campaign funded by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, BAMN youth organizers convinced the voters to make Detroit the first and only city in the nation to overturn a state takeover and regain a fully-elected school board.

"There hasn't been a real movement to combat racism and inequality in the past 20-30 years. People have a prejudice towards young people, and try to write us off as irresponsible and apathetic. But we're angry and discontented. We haven't had any of our parents' gains taken away, but we see glaring inequalities that need to be stuck down," said Tristan.

In the fight to preserve race- and gender-based affirmative action, he's also a key organizer in BAMN’s campaign to defeat American Civil Rights Initiative founder Ward Connerly’s effort to ban affirmative action in Michigan through a ballot referendum in November 2006.

According to Tristan, though MCRI’s initiative would formally ban affirmative action only in Michigan, “the affect of losing race-based preferences in affirmative action will be devastating to the whole nation.”

"In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the center of the debate and resistance against segregation in the nation. 1963 was a decisive year in the Civil Rights Movement. If the marches and protests didn't happen, the movement would have been delayed," said Tristan.

BAMN sees Michigan as Birmingham. “The outcome of the fight to preserve affirmative action will have an enormous impact on its status in programs nationwide, and defeating this initiative is BAMN’s highest priority for the coming year,” said Tristan.

“To understand the ban’s catastrophic affect on black college students, we only have to look at the University of California, where Ward Connerly successfully got affirmative action thrown out,” said Tristan. “There is now a 75 percent drop in minority students at UC-Berkeley and UC-Los Angeles. In 2004, both universities’ law schools witnessed the graduation of only two black students. Also, at both schools the family income of freshman increased dramatically."

These days Tristan is focusing all on his energies on making sure MCRI does not get affirmative action on Michigan’s ballot in 2006.When asked if affirmative action should instead be based on need, his answer was a vehement “no.”

“People who think it should be based on need have an unfortunate misunderstanding of the question of racism in American society.,” said Tristan. “Of course, if there was no racism, you would not need affirmative action, but that’s just not true in American society.”