Mother's Day Musings: What World Will My Son Inherit?

Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a plant in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Along with the enormous risks global warming
Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a plant in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Along with the enormous risks global warming poses for humanity are opportunities to improve public health and build a better world, scientists gathered in Yokohama for a climate change conference said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

My son is two years and four months old, and he's a constant source of wonder and joy. The world I've brought him into, though, is too often a source of worry for his future.

My little boy may well live past the end of this century. How much of a planet will be left? Between climate change, pollution and all their ripple effects, will his quality of life be irretrievably damaged by decisions that were made before he was even born?

I will not give in to despair. Instead, I take hope from the fact that all around the world, good people - some of whom, I'm proud to say, are my colleagues - are working to move us toward a cleaner world with opportunities for all to not just survive, but thrive.

But even if the physical environment of the earth is safe, what about the human environment? A two-year-old lives in a world full of endless possibilities, with new things to discover and explore around every corner. Will he be let down by adults who too often seem to see life as a case of us vs. them?

To take just one example, I want my son to have the best education he can possibly get. I want every door open for him, so he can walk through whichever one takes him toward his dreams.

So I can't just be a bystander in debates about affirmative action, particularly as it applies to higher education. The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a disturbingly myopic ruling on a Michigan case challenging the state's ban on use of race as a factor in admissions to publicly funded colleges and universities. In my own state of California, an attempt by legislators to place repeal of a similar law on the state ballot got scuttled after a burst of well-organized opposition skillfully stirred up among some elements of the Asian American community.

As an Indian American, this hits close to home for me and my family. On the one hand, I can't deny the possibility that efforts to increase enrollment of underrepresented groups like African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders might decrease the number of spots open to my son. But I also know that that's not the whole picture.

For one thing, my boy will enter the college admissions rat race with plenty of advantages. He has two college-educated parents who will move heaven and earth to give him every head start we can. And while we aren't wealthy, we are economically secure. Millions of kids - including far too many from those underrepresented groups - are starting from an unlevel playing field and are already facing greater barriers. My son has already demonstrated a quick mind, so if he applies himself, I'm confident that he will get into a good school.

But education is not about what school you get into, it's about the experience you have once you get there. It's about broadening your understanding of the world through exposure to different life experiences and points of view. There are things you can learn from living and studying next to people from dramatically different backgrounds that you simply cannot get from a lecture or textbook. My son will not gain by being assured of a spot at any college he wants if that means the experience he has when he gets there is drained of its life and variety by a student body that isn't diverse.

And mostly, I want my son to grow up understanding that life is not a zero-sum game. His gain does not have to come at someone else's expense, and someone else's gain does not mean he has to lose something in the bargain. We can - and indeed must - all move forward together.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. He said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

That understanding is what has been most lacking in debates over affirmative action, but it may be the most important lesson anyone can learn - in or out of school.