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.”
Students of color across this campus are qualified and are impressive beyond measure. There is no formula for admission to this university, nor are any two applicants the same. Furthermore, admissions standards were not lowered to afford us opportunities. Instead, our work ethic in our classes, our leadership roles in various communities, our innovation that drives us forward, and our exhibition of the most promise for future contributions to society, in spite of the sentiments expressed in negative articles, are what brought us and all of Harvard’s student body to this campus. We are all Harvard students, and it is our greatest hope that all students on this campus grow to appreciate this fact and to quell divisive and stigmatizing demagoguery. This campus is not made weaker because of the presence of racial minorities (or women or Midwesterners); it is strengthened. We write, as the Black Community Leaders of recognized student organizations of the African Diaspora, to argue against widespread inaccuracies and to spur continued conversation around ways to improve race relations and perceptions for future Harvard students.
Fay Alexander ’14, a government concentrator in Cabot House, is Vice President of the Black Students Association. Everton L. Blair, Jr. ’13, an applied mathematics concentrator in Currier House, is Co-Chair of the Black Community Leaders. Yolanda Borquaye ’14, a joint sociology and government concentrator in Cabot House, is President of the Association of Black Harvard Women.