Contextualizing Notions of Fairness in College Admissions

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into Harvard’s use of affirmative action in admissions, citing unfair discrimination against white and Asian students. In response, several articles criticized the announcement as white exploitation of some Asian Americans’ frustrations with college admissions, viewing it as a questionable alliance around the elimination of race-conscious policies.

Driven by sympathy for the concerns of the Asian community, many of the articles cautioned that backing by white opposition groups should be viewed with suspicion and replaced with narratives contextualizing the unique Asian experience. The underlying message is that Asians who oppose affirmative action should be able to express their criticisms in ways that are not manipulated by anti-black divide-and-conquer strategies. Alas, this is a tall order that requires collective myopia and a dismissal of both the history of affirmative action and the Asian community’s contributions to its racial politics.

When I and my other black classmates were accepted into elite colleges, cries of injustice rang out just as strongly from Asian classmates as white ones. In what has become a perverse rite-of-passage for many black students in my position, I endured whispered complaints that I was taking someone’s “spot.” Implicit in the outrage was the sincere disbelief that of 35,023 Harvard applicants worldwide, there could exist even a couple hundred black applicants who truly merited admission. There is a word for that: “racism.”

Frankly, there is a significant portion of the Asian community who believes that people like me are getting the upper hand in college admissions. This is despite the reality that, 50 years after affirmative action was introduced, African Americans are rarely accepted into colleges at rates reflecting their fraction of the population.

Blacks and Asians make up 13.3 percent and 5.7 percent of the US population, respectively. In contrast, my incoming class was 11.5 percent black and 19.9 percent Asian. Still, in 2014, the Silicon Valley Chinese Association successfully mobilized to defeat a bill proposing to restore affirmative action in California’s public universities. The following year, 64 Asian organizations formed the Asian American Coalition for Education to file a complaint against Harvard for denying admissions to Asian American applicants while accepting comparable applicants of other races. The resulting case is at the heart of the Department of Justice’s recent directive.

The retort is that Asian Americans’ dissatisfaction with race-conscious admissions should be seen as distinct from Abigail Fisher-esque anger because of their unique social position. In this view, rather than bemoaning change to the old segregationist order, Asian American activists are simply advocating for a pure meritocracy that would assumedly increase Asian representation at the expense of less-qualified members of other racial groups. Ironically, however, this perspective is inextricably linked to the anti-black backlash that affirmative action has received since its implementation. Indeed, the model minority myth was constructed as a counter to the Civil Rights Movement.

Affirmative action is one of the few reparative gestures ever made to America’s perennial underclass. The policy was conceived to remedy systematic exclusion of African Americans from higher education and portions of the workforce. In a speech at Howard University, President Lyndon B. Johnson, an architect of affirmative action, exposed the issue with arguments that African American underrepresentation was the regrettable but fair product of blind meritocracy at work. He famously remarked, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Thus, rather than a nod to fairness in the abstract, affirmative action was imagined as a necessary provision to address crimes America tries its best to forget.

Of course, despite the successes of affirmative action, African Americans still face disadvantages in virtually all aspects of society. Stereotypes of intellectual inferiority, economic discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline, and many other factors construct an unparalleled achievement barrier. Further, like all overtures to atone for slavery and segregation’s effects on African American prosperity, affirmative action has acted more as a rising tide than a reparation, helping additional groups in some cases more than African Americans. White women are its chief beneficiaries in the workforce, for example. Thus, critiques that affirmative action discriminates against whites and Asians to benefit the undeserving are blind to the goal of affirmative action and how its benefits have been distributed.

Discussions about race-conscious admissions are negligent if not tethered to the racist history that necessitate them. No argument is free of the politics that long deemed African Americans “unqualified” by dint of their skin—no matter the color of the group advancing it. Surely some aggrieved white Americans insincerely use the Asian American cause to further their own; however, until Asian American opponents of affirmative action incorporate historical realities into their own notions of fairness, their historical positions as tools of division will not solely be the fault of white people.

Diondra D. Peck ’17 is an Applied Math concentrator in Winthrop House.


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