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Affirmative Action Returns

Greater transparency is the way to move past the current conundrum

By Mark A. Adomanis

Affirmative action, after what seemed like a lengthy departure from the headlines, has catapulted back into the public view in large part because of the civil rights lawsuit of Yale freshman Jian Li.

When I told my mom, an ESL teacher at a parochial high school in North Philadelphia, the general outline of the current uproar over Asian Americans and college admissions, she became angry, lifted her voice, and said “This is ridiculous! ‘Over-represented?’ My kids’ parents can’t even speak English! [The kids] work for five or six hours each night in their parents’ stores, and still manage to get all of their homework done by the next day. Without fail. They work harder than anyone.”

You see, my mother works with a large number of Asian-American students, almost all of whom are recent arrivals from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. She went on to detail the superhuman—to me at least—exertions of her students and their parents. Yes, the “hard working immigrant” is a standby American cliché, but the people I had described to me were dedicated in a way that I can only vaguely imagine.

Now because my mother’s students are from decidedly unprivileged economic backgrounds—many of their parents owe a significant amount of money to the people that “helped” them get out of rural China—Ivy League schools are absolutely out of the question. Instead many get scholarships to local schools such as Temple or Drexel. Yet it strikes me as profoundly unfair that these students, or perhaps more realistically their children, could be deemed by some admissions officer to be an “over-represented” minority, and thus really not a minority at all.

Justifying the school’s current policy, The Daily Princetonian incredulously noted “While we all aspire to some mythical ‘colorblind’ society, our society continues to treat people differently based on their race and ethnicity.” While it is possible to disagree about the degree to which racial differences affect life experience in America, only the most foolish would suggest that they do not exist. Yet what is profoundly mystifying to me, is why racism, or “differential treatment,” or whatever else one sees fit to call it, is somehow supposed to magically skip over Asian Americans in general and the sort of first-generation Asian Americans taught by my mother in particular.

What conceivable sort of advantage is provided by having non-English speaking parents who work at least 12 hours a day in menial labor? Clearly such people face some economic barriers and racial discrimination, so why is their treatment not worthy of redress? Is there some sort of “racism scale” on which the difficulties faced by Asians are smaller than those faced by either Hispanics or blacks? If so, who makes such a scale and, more importantly, who is doing the weighing?

I know enough of American history to be skeptical of the establishment and its willingness to open itself up to competition—hello there, legacy admissions!—and I’m thus wary of those who argue that our society is already a meritocratic paradise. I’m also extremely wary of those who claim that the best way to fix this is to engage in a sort of therapeutic racism that, inevitably, is forced to decide who among the minorities is a “deserving” minority and who is an “over-represented” one. In theory, admissions should be done the way many elite colleges claim they are conducted: holistically, with no explicit quantitative benefit for certain races. But looking at admissions data, it seems that colleges are giving such weight to considerations of race that the result is de facto quotas.

As I see it, the only way for the situation to be improved—it is not capable of being perfectly “fixed” since it exists in the decidedly imperfect real world—is to shine a great deal of sunlight on a process that is now quite secretive. If universities want to make “holistic” admissions decisions, that is certainly their prerogative. In fact it is probably the only way to build a campus that doesn’t stink of depression as a quick visit to Caltech or MIT will attest.

However, since the leading private universities receive such massive amounts of federal money, and since their admissions slots are so coveted, I think it would be reasonable if they let the public know more about their admissions practices. More specifically, I think that schools receiving a significant amount of federal money, say $50 million, should be required to publicly release the GPAs, grades, SAT scores, AP scores, lists of extracurricular activities, income, geographic region, and race of all students who applied and the admissions decision rendered on each one. Students would of course be identified anonymously. This would allow the public a better idea of just how schools make their decisionbys, and would allow the statistically inclined to run a few analyses seeing how schools treat people from different regions, races, and economic classes. Would this be imperfect? Absolutely, but I still think it would be vastly better than the current system and would allow the public to verify how schools follow through on their own rhetoric.

Please note that I am not suggesting outside interference in admissions decisions, but merely greater public scrutiny of the process. Given that Li’s suit seems possible only in large part because of incomplete or unavailable information, I think that, in the long run, this plan could only help Harvard and other similar schools.

Mark A. Adomanis ’07 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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