On November 2nd, a Harvard Student named Sarah Siskind published an article in the Harvard Crimson titled Affirmative Dissatisfaction, which was not only critical of the policy but asked serious questions about what it means to be a minority.
Here’s an excerpt of Ms. Siskind’s article:
The Supreme Court is in the midst of hearing a suit against the University of Texas at Austin by Abigail Fisher. She maintains she was the victim of an admissions process that elevates skin color above academic qualifications and gives unfair advantage to minorities.
But who counts as a “minority” in affirmative action? Unfortunately for Ms. Fisher, adorable gingers are not considered a minority (despite red hair occurring in only 1-2 percent of the world population). So clearly, not just any minority can qualify as a “minority.”
Perhaps affirmative action is meant to help those who have historically been discriminated against. It would be hard to overlook women and Jews when considering historical punching bags. However, women and Jews are indeed overlooked in the affirmative action policies of most schools.
Perhaps affirmative action attempts to help those groups heavily correlated with lower incomes. One of the strongest correlations with lower incomes is held by those with lower centers of gravity. As if short people didn’t have it bad enough: being refused at roller coasters, being unable to stand in the shallow end of pools, and now, being denied affirmative action. At least they don’t have to stand in the back for pictures.
Finally, what about intellect? Perhaps our universities are in dire need of diversity of intelligence. Counter to most stereotypes, ugliness is highly correlated with poor intellectual performance by traditional measures, though I don’t know how many qualified applicants will be willing to put that down on their application.
Race-based affirmative action attempts to target these groups: the discriminated against, the poor, and those with unique experiences and intellectual merits. However, affirmative action is fundamentally flawed because it uses race instead of targeting these groups themselves. Less academically qualified applicants should be treated as such, unless they come from poorer households and therefore do not have access to the same amount of resources as other applicants. However, this would be class-based affirmative action, not race-based.
Helping those with primarily low academic qualifications into primarily academic institutions makes as much sense as helping the visually impaired become pilots. How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school? I do not see why higher academic institutions should lower their standards for admission.
In addition to inspiring hundreds of reader comments, the article also provoked a response in the form of a Crimson article written by Fay Alexander, Everton L. Blair and Yolanda Borquaye who describe themselves as Harvard’s Black Community Leaders.
They argue that racism is still alive and well in America and that there’s still a need for race based affirmative action.
Here’s an excerpt.
We, the Black Community Leaders, must express how thoroughly disappointed many members of our community are at recent, public misrepresentations of affirmative action. As leaders and members of various cultural and ethnic groups on campus, it is our responsibility to respond to such blatant inaccuracies.
We were deeply disheartened by the assertion that students who benefit from affirmative action are less qualified than their peers. Aside from the fact that Harvard’s community of color is rich with exemplary students, the recent piece, “Affirmative Dissatisfaction,” also fails to recognize the importance of diversity, including the diversity of race. Furthermore, moving toward an exclusively class-based affirmative action policy, as alternatively suggested, ignores the continued importance of race in decision-making at all levels of American civil society. Unlike many in the majority race, minorities can expect to experience racially prejudiced interactions in almost every part of their daily lives, regardless of their elevated socio-economic or educational statuses.
Consider the 2010 incident that occurred at a Boston bar and restaurant when a party hosted by Harvard and Yale Law School students and alumni was forced to close. The staff closed the party simply because they assumed these Black students to be “local gangbangers,” and alerted local authorities. In this situation, any privilege that may have been granted through the students’ educational status was completely discounted; the only thing that mattered to the staff was the students’ race. As long as race remains a primary social identifier and a tool of prejudice and oppression, it remains a legitimate attribute for diversification in selecting a class of students or a staff of employees. Advocating for other metrics that the college does not currently explicitly use for diversification, such as height and hair color, does not diminish societal salience of race and its everyday use.
Harvard wants a diverse student body so that people from different backgrounds can engage in discussions of importance. We should thank Harvard for getting it right. Our student body is richer for having minority racial groups on campus, as it is similarly richer for having students from Kansas and students who intend to concentrate in folklore and mythology. We do not want people to look at minorities and say we’re here simply to remedy America’s ugly past; we want people to appreciate the various perspectives of minorities and what we have to offer as individuals in every space on this campus.
We acknowledge that affirmative action is not perfect and can be improved, but we contend that, in an America that has yet to move beyond race as a defining factor, it is absolutely necessary. We cannot presume to do away with affirmative action until we do away with the structural barriers that confront minority populations every day.
Until we live in an America where we are not judged by the color of our skin and ethnicity, or made to believe that we are less qualified than our white counterparts, then as a community it is our responsibility to continue to protect those who are most vulnerable to the effects of racism. Columnists that conflate race-based affirmative action with lowered standards for admission such as Sarah Siskind only reinforce the need for affirmative action, for they reveal a naive understanding of the experiences of minority populations within the U.S. and the need for representation of these populations in order to engage in these discussions about their experiences.
We seek justice and racial equality for all, but we recognize as well the importance for racial diversity even where this ideal exists. For even in equality, there can be diversity. This is where Harvard admissions succeeds: “Although they come from many different places and backgrounds and have a striking variety of talents, ambitions, and convictions, all possess a passion for learning.”
While all of this discussion is interesting, I can’t help but wonder.
Is everyone aware that an African-American graduate of Harvard Law School was just elected to a second term as the President of the United States?