Making Affirmative Action Work

The lead article in last week's issue of The Independent [April 29, 1993] confirmed what many people already suspected: Asian and white students at Harvard are disproportionately distributed at the high end of the grade rank scale; Blacks and Latinos generally score lower. More surprising was the fact that none of the "experts" interviewed for the article mentioned Harvard's preferential admissions policy as a possible explanation for the resulting discrepancies. This glaring omission should make us reconsider our settled notions of diversity and racial equality at Harvard.

According to The Independent's 1993 campus survey, no less than three-fourths of the Asians at Harvard and two-thirds of the whites make the Dean's List (Groups I and II), while less than half of the Black and Latino students achieve the same distinction. The handful of "experts" and students asked to comment on these figures gave three reasons for the discrepancies: first, that minorities are forced to commit so much time working on race-relations that they have less time to study; second, that different ethnic groups are subjected to different family and social pressures that influence their motivation to achieve academically; and third, that the superior performance of Asians and whites reflects their socio-economic advantage.

What the last two explanations have in common (I won't waste my time on the first one) is that they all presuppose that Harvard represents and should represent a microcosm of society at large, reflecting America in its racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity. This is the current rationale behind Harvard's affirmative action policy. This is also the reason differences in academic achievement among groups in society are reproduced within the Harvard community. Not all groups in society have equal access to educational resources. Not all groups in society place equal stress on educational achievement. Any cross-section of college-bound youth is bound to reflect these inequalities.

To accomodate these differences, proponents of diversity relax Harvard's rigorous academic standards. Academic rigor is no longer considered the heart of a Harvard education but instead relegated somewhere closer to the periphery. Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons '67 said in the article that differences in academic rank were not important because "there are many other ways to make an important contribution to the class." And as Gary Orfield, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, said, "The key thing is that Harvard is admitting students who can make it through. Whether they all make it through equally is less important."

Still, others feel the need to minimize differences in academic achievement more directly, by explaining away these discrepancies. Afro-American Studies Professor K. Anthony Appiah suggested that Black and Latino students performed less well than their Asian and white counterparts because racist incidents and innuendoes make it hard to concentrate on academics. In an effort to diffuse the phenomenon of Asian success, president of the Asian American Association Joan Cheng '95 pathologized the penchant of her Asian American peers to achieve academically. As an Asian, she explains, "if you don't do well, you feel guilty."


Summarizing the opinions quoted in the article, the staff of The Independent write that peer, professorial, and family expectations can "lead to Asian students surpassing their potential and black students falling short of it." But the problem isn't that expectations placed on Asian students are too high, but that everyone--including the administrators and professors interviewed in the article--expects and demands too little from Black students. There is a fine line betwen explaining away Black "underachievement" and accepting it.

We do a disservice to disadvantaged minorities by suggesting (1) that academics is only one of many equally valuable avenues of excellence at the university, and (2) that the "underachievement" of Blacks is neither their fault not their responsibility, just as the "overachievement" of Asians should be explained psychologically, in a way that smacks of mechanistic determinism. This saps the will to excellence, first by devaluing academic achievement, then by explaining it away. This kind of talk causes individual effort to disappear in a web of social, economic, and psychological barriers and forces beyond their control. So what's the use of studying?

Administrators, professors, and students who feel the need to justify discrepancies in academic achievement among ethnic groups at Harvard want to protect the gains of affirmative action from the dismantling impulses of their conservative opponents. But their good intentions work against themselves. If we can agree that affirmative action policies are a necessary remedy to the historical injustices suffered by Blacks in this country, we cheapen that redress when we try to disguise the fact that affirmative action is at work. Affirmative action does not erase past injustices once it admits disadvantaged Black students into Harvard; rather, it allows those inequities to enter the campus. The result is that some Blacks and Latinos admitted into Harvard are generally less well-prepared for the academic work here than other groups.

The truth is that disadvantaged minorities have to work harder than others to achieve the same level of success. While this fact offends our notion of fairness, it is a truth that should not be covered over by the rubric of "diversity" or psychologized to the point of paralysis. The ideology of victimhood proves fatal to its victims if it is not quickly converted into a concept of self discipline and personal virtue. If anything, we need to cultivate a larger sphere in which individual responsibility and merit are unconditionally demanded and respected.

This is especially true if we want affirmative action to work. Administrators, professors, and students who support affirmative action are letting students from disadvantaged backgrounds off the hook precisely when these students most need to catch up and take full advantage of the educational opportunities now available to them. By relaxing academic standards and excusing less-than-stellar achievement, we engage in the worst form of condescension. We are denying disadvantaged minorities the very legacy of the civil rights movement: a chance to prove themselves more than capable of meeting equal standards.