Harvard and Affirmative Action, or Why Helping Black People Is OK as Long as It Helps White People Too

For a brief moment, I was literally the face of diversity at Harvard (my picture was once on the cover of that little diversity handbook that’s given out to students of color).  Years before that, however, I first entered Harvard in the year 2000 as an 18 year old African American freshman from rural South Carolina, and my blackness was, well it was something.  I’d written about my background in my application essays; I’d also sent in some impressive grades and test scores and accomplishments with my high school debate team (which is what initially brought me to Harvard’s campus for a tournament during my Junior year of high school and made me fall in love with Harvard and Cambridge/Boston) . I figured all that would help, and I got in.

As you can imagine, although most people at Harvard didn’t ask me directly if I got in because I was black (although I’m pretty sure a couple of folks did), the question kind of permeated the atmosphere anyway.  One of my first “political” actions in college was participating in a sit-in as part of the Black Students Association against a professor who had written an op-ed blaming integration at Harvard for grade inflation (they really rolled out the welcoming committee for us, you know).

I decided a few things from these early experiences.  One, people are complicated.  Over the years, I had a few conversations with that professor – who was personally charming if stuffy and who reveled in getting a rise out of people by publicly saying controversial things – and he ended up being one of my examiners during oral exams when I came back for grad school; his was the exam in which I did the best. I didn’t need the validation, but do admit it was satisfying.. Two, I don’t particularly like protesting (although there are times, like during a Black Lives Matter rally/”die-in”, when it’s necessary).

And three, the question of whether my blackness helped me get into Harvard in some way (to argue that it didn’t hurt in other ways seems absurd to anyone who knows much about America’s past, or present, or likely immediate future) was, at the end of the day, irrelevant once I been admitted.  There are lots of people smart enough and talented enough to get into Harvard and other elite institutions, and not enough slots for them all (purposely, of course, to maintain the elite-ness) and so people are admitted, or rejected, for all kinds of reasons.  I was good enough to get in, as were the people I met and knew and had classes with, and I decided that was enough.

My personal journey to “who-gives-a-****-ness,” however, somehow did not end the overall debates about admissions policies, and race, and diversity, and Affirmative Action.  Ever since JFK signed an executive order telling government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin,” policies of taking race into account or redressing past discrimination have been controversial (and hey, remember when Presidents used executive orders for things that decreased racial/ethnic/religious discrimination? Oh, the olden times…).

Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled in Harvard’s favor in a case that had been brought against the university by a group of Asian-American applicants who argued that aspects of Harvard’s “holistic” approach to evaluating applicants, such as assigning a “personality” score, hurt Asian Americans applying to the school (they were generally awarded lower “personality” scores), and resulted in less Asian Americans being accepted than they would under criteria that only took academic achievement into account. Asian-American students are, compared to their share of the American population, over-represented at Harvard (5% of America, 22% of a recent Harvard admitted class). Yet their complaint is that they shouldn’t be penalized for being too good or too successful, and that any notion that there were “too many” Asian Americans at Harvard reeks of racism of the type once directed towards Jews, whose numbers were “capped” at Harvard in the 1920s and 30s after having grown to about 20% of the student body population.  Apparently the “holistic” approach to admissions was initially a way to make such an anti-Semitic quota less obvious.

Defenders of Harvard’s policy in turn made several arguments: that Affirmative Action policies were important for redressing racial inequities and that abandoning or altering them would significantly lower the numbers of black and Latinx students, among others; that having a diverse student body is inherently valuable, and that the holistic approach to admissions had evolved into an important tool for fostering such diversity; and that the lawsuit was not entirely in good faith – the group who filed, Students for Fair Admissions, was not founded by Asian American applicants but by Edward Blum, a white conservative anti-Affirmative Action advocate who has tried through several methods to attack the policy (it’s also worth noting that experts predicted that, if the changes proposed in the lawsuit were made, the main beneficiaries would actually be white prospective students).

The Harvard trial and its aftermath have revealed many things, including that many, many students get into Harvard for reasons other than academic merit; legacy, athletic prowess, and let’s not forget money (meanwhile, the other major college admissions scandal this year revealed that buying your way into college is bad if it’s done too directly, or simply too cheaply).

Obscured in the scandal was exactly how Harvard’s Affirmative Action policy (which may or may not actually be “Affirmative Action” anyway, but let’s call it that for simplicity) works.  Harvard’s approach has actually been the model for many years, since it was initially affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1978 (with appeals to the current case likely, the Supreme Court may get another crack at judging Harvard).  There have essentially been two systems of Affirmative Action in college admissions, and two stated goals as well (the goals and systems are not synonymous but are related).  One goal, of course, is to redress the legacies and current realities of racism that disproportionately deny the opportunity of higher education (along with lots of other opportunities as well) to various groups, such as African Americans.

This is the standard story.  Affirmative Action, in this view, puts in place policies and procedures that tip the scales towards these marginalized groups in order to counterbalance the weights that have already been placed against them.  Critics of this approach scream retorts like “you can’t fight racism with racism,” ignoring the context. To mix metaphors, no one would chide a doctor for using a scalpel while operating on a stabbing victim; even though both the surgeon and the assailant are cutting the victim/patient with a knife, the context obviously makes a large moral and practical difference.

One method of applying Affirmative Action policies to make up for the various systemic racisms and biases that lead to under-representation is simply to up the numbers; that is, to establish quotas or set numbers of admissions slots put aside for members of various underrepresented groups.  This was a rather simple and fairly crude tool (more like a hacksaw than a scalpel, to stretch the analogy further) used by schools like the University of California in the 1970s.

The Supreme Court has decided that, in cases of race, it’s important to examine whether a saw or even a scalpel is the most appropriate tool (ok, I’m torturing this metaphor; I’ll stop now). Race-based policies are subjected to strict scrutiny by the courts, the highest standards that the courts have. Essentially, if your policy takes race into consideration (as Affirmative Action does), it’s up to you to demonstrate that the policy addresses some very important need, that this need can only be addressed by factoring in race, and that the way in which race is employed is the best method available for achieving the important goal.

The Supreme Court applied this standard in 1978 in the Affirmative Action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In doing so, it decided that both the goal of the University of California (to redress racial inequalities) and the method used (quotas for minority students) did not pass the test.  However, it affirmed (sorry) that there were other versions of Affirmative Action (or Affirmative Action adjacent) policies that did, and pointed directly to Harvard.

(Disclaimers and such: I obviously went to Harvard for a long time, and I have worked for them on and off in various teaching capacities, including now. And I generally like the institution a lot, even if I look at it critically).

Harvard’s method of achieving diversity in admissions is one that takes race into consideration as one among many factors but does not make it the deciding factor (if there are multiple things that could tip the scales in an applicant’s favor, and race is one of them but not given a special status, then you can’t say that someone got in because of their race, even if it helped). The SFFA tried to argue that Harvard’s policies had become an undercover quota (please, please Hollywood, do NOT make that into a movie), but the judge this week disagreed. Unlike quotas (where race is the deciding factor for certain slots), Harvard-like “race conscious” policies can pass strict scrutiny, the courts have decided.

The Harvard model’s biggest innovation, however, is not one of process but of purpose. Harvard’s stated goal is not to solve a social wrong. Its policies, according to the school, are aimed at creating a diverse student body because such an atmosphere is conducive to learning and development for all its students (cynical paraphrase: see, it’s not just about helping black people; white people benefit from it too, so it must be good!).   This version of Affirmative Action may help redress past wrongs (although critics say it doesn’t do a super good job of that), but that’s essentially presented as a useful side-effect, not the primary goal.  The primary goal is to benefit the overall student body, which, we’ve been reminded, is still predominantly white and,especially for those white students, largely quite wealthy and privileged.

If you believe that Harvard and similar institutions should be dedicating efforts towards increasing diversity for the purpose of redressing inequality and discrimination, there are at least three ways of looking at Harvard’s philosophy concerning race and admissions. An optimistic or generous reading of the policy would assume that Harvard also shares these social justice beliefs (and no, social justice is not a pejorative and we shouldn’t give in to those who try to make it such).  Harvard’s simply found a clever and logical way of furthering these social goals by crafting them in a way that is beneficial to everyone and presenting them in a way that won’t provoke too much backlash or legal scrutiny from those opposed to this type of progress (and that can withstand the challenges that come, as happened this week). A less generous approach would argue that Harvard is more or less indifferent about justice, but is more concerned with maintaining its prestige, influence, and its bottom line.  When these interests happen to align with social progress, as they do at the moment (for example, most of Harvard’s recent graduates are politically liberal and specifically support Affirmative Action policies, and Harvard likes to keep its alumni/donors happy), then it’s a nice coincidence; I call this the “hey, it’s better than nothing” view.

The third, most cynical view is that Harvard and other schools like it have managed to make even Affirmative Action serve white privilege. To dust off my old SAT analogy skills (yes, I know they don’t have those anymore; I’m old): “diversity is good for everyone” is to “Affirmative Action” as “All Lives Matter” is to “Black Lives Matter.”  Ok, perhaps this one is a bit unfair (in part because “All Lives Matter” is  a disingenuous cover for “leave the status quo alone,” but I digress), but justifying policies to benefit underprivileged black and brown people by demonstrating how they benefit privileged white people is a very American phenomenon. I’ve come to realize that institutions, like people, are also complicated, and I suspect that all these motivations are present to varying degrees throughout Harvard and similar elite schools.  Nevertheless, the effect is still to facilitate access to all the benefits of a Harvard or Harvard-like education to those who would otherwise be forced to miss out. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul (this is Political Religions, after all), whether in pretense or in truth, diversity is preached, and I therein do rejoice, and will rejoice!

How long that rejoicing will last remains to be seen.  The ever more conservative Supreme Court may or may not uphold this ruling.  Beyond the disingenuous motives of some who jumped on the anti-Affirmative Action bandwagon (or those who started that wagon rolling in the first place), there are hard-working, talented students, including many Asian Americans, who have a legitimate point about being differentially rewarded for their success. Ideally, ways will be found to address those concerns without re-disadvantaging other minorities in the process.  Ironically, the other admissions scandal, where wealthy (and occasionally famous) parents paid fairly large (but generally not “Kushner large”) sums of money to cheat their kids into good colleges, has sometimes been conflated with the Harvard case into a “the admissions system is broken and should be overhauled” narrative.  But this spin, essentially saying that historically disadvantaged groups (or, to use less benign jargon, folks who get discriminated against all the time) should bear the brunt of a backlash against rich and otherwise privileged white people, seems unfair (and yet, to repeat, quintessentially American, in a way).  For now, however, this absurd but somehow plausible outcome has not occurred; for the moment, Harvard’s admissions policy and the concept of Affirmative Action have been exonerated and live to fight (and there will be other fights) another day.


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