Defending Affirmative Action, Again

Ironically, if every American understood why affirmative action is such a necessary component of the college admissions process, we would not need affirmative action anymore. If every American had full respect for and recognition of the past—its triumphs but as well its shameful evils—then we wouldn’t need affirmative action anymore. If every American fought earnestly against the enormous forces of structural racism and used their actions and their voice to combat the consequences of oppression, then we wouldn’t need affirmative action anymore. However, by no stretch of the human imagination have those conditions been fulfilled and, thus, affirmative action is still extremely necessary at this time in American history.

It is arrogant and inaccurate to believe that students admitted into a university as beneficiaries of affirmative action are students of diminished academic qualification. Affirmative action is neither a policy that relies on quotas nor a means by which deserving students of a majority demographic are maliciously stripped of an entitled offer. Rather, affirmative action is a policy that rightfully encourages admissions officers to keep a sensitive eye to a student’s context. Yes, that white student with a perfect GPA who scored a perfect score on the SAT deserved an admissions offer. However, so did that the minority student, replacing her, who succeeded despite structural forces depriving him of a high-quality education system and the resources it affords.

There are no doubt beneficiaries of affirmative action at Harvard. Yet despite the negative connotations which some have tried vehemently to attach to affirmative action, minority students do not have qualms over this consideration in their admittance. To the contrary, conversations over numerous email lists and social media outlets indicate that minority groups on Harvard’s campus know the value of their contribution to this community. These students have worked hard for their success. Contrary to the myth of under-qualification, many minority students have put in exponentially more time and work to prove they deserve a seat at the table—sometimes two, three times over. They are determined to overcome the vestigial racism that constantly questions their intellectual worth and academic capacity. They were granted admissions because of affirmative action, because of provisions that weighed their holistic potential within the context of their environment, and they will go on to be some of the most successful lawyers, politicians, professors, and surgeons in their communities.

And what exactly would an admissions policy without affirmative action look like? Does it mean turning a blind eye to an individual’s context? To their economic status, or race—all of which are huge factors in determining an individual’s identity? The truth is that a student’s ethnicity, race, and class all inform his or her perception of the world inherently because these same characteristics inform the world’s perception of them. Admissions is not wholly about the individual, but more often about the broader community and building a class of students, each highly capable of academic success. And how are we to define merit? By test scores and GPA’s alone? Therefore, it is reasonable that crucial aspects of identity including ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, and indeed race be taken into consideration when building a cohesive class. The admissions office does not expect me to strip myself of my racial and ethnic identity when I’m in a Barker seminar room, so why should they strip me of these different aspects of my world view when weighing the value of my contribution to the community in question?

In the race that is the American educational system, not all students are beginning from the same starting line, nor are they all taking the same path to success. Some have longer distances to run, others have more hurdles to jump. Some are even running barefoot. So if a rule comes along that acknowledges the additional burden and hardship of an individual striving toward reaching the finish line, why would we void the policy before we can ensure that all the contestants are running under equal conditions to begin with? Perhaps, if we are aiming to objectively provide equal opportunity then we should not be debating whether or not universities should have these affirmative action policies, but rather how to improve upon them. That being said, unless we are willing to accept the necessity of affirmative action, why it is not comparable to the admissions of legacies, short men, or other straw men, we will never reach the point at which we can leave the initiative behind.


Bethlehem Dereje ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House.