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There is perhaps no topic in American society as contentious as the issue of race. So, it’s no surprise that the intersection of race and college admissions has ignited firestorm after firestorm since the introduction of race-based affirmative action in the 1960s. In more recent years, Harvard’s own admissions system has come under particular scrutiny for how it weighs a students’ racial identity, particularly in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard lawsuit.
While the courts have decided in Harvard’s favor so far, the public debate surrounding affirmative action is nowhere near over. What does affirmative action mean for the students who actually occupy the identities under discussion? How do students think about their many identities as former applicants, but also as stakeholders in the Harvard community?
In light of this renewed conversation on affirmative action, I spoke with students of color about how affirmative action and their identities impact the way they move through Harvard.
As children dotted in and out of the Zoom window, I spoke with Claira Janover ’21 — the former president of the Harvard Half Asian People’s Association, who’s currently living with her chosen family in Jackson, Wyo. While I tense up every time the topic of affirmative action is introduced in conversation, Janover seemed in her element, detailing her views on the subject and the finer points of the history of affirmative action. Her mother, who taught African American history and gender studies, introduced her to race consciousness from a young age.
In Janover’s view, to completely ignore race in admissions is to tacitly accept and endorse the racial dynamic of our society at large: to her, an unacceptable alternative to Harvard’s flawed but necessary affirmative action program.
But what was most revelatory about Janover’s story was her understanding of her own identity. Janover, who grew up in New Haven, Conn. with her Jewish mother, was “bat mitzvah-ed” and thought of herself as a “white person who happened to be Asian,” until being introduced to new dimensions of the Asian American experience in college. Far from being static, Janover’s understanding of her identity has been evolving as she experiences new facets of life as a biracial woman.
Janover’s story, although uniquely her own, represents the hope and the limitations of affirmative action. Identity, whether it be racial identity or any other, exists only as a collection of iterations of unique individual experiences. There is no unified experience of being Asian American, or of being Black or of any other ethnic group that can be captured by quotas.
Thu M. Pham ’23 and Truong L. Nguyen ’23, co-presidents of the Harvard Vietnamese Association, shared similar sentiments of being Asian American and endorsing affirmative action. While supportive of the program as a whole, the pair isn’t indifferent to the way Asian American applicants are treated in the admissions office: They want admissions officers to honor Harvard College’s commitment to diversity while respecting the humanity of the Asian American students who apply. In Nguyen’s words, consideration of a student’s race “should only be used to add more into the narrative” of a student’s identity, and never to detract from their admissibility.
Eric Reyes-Muñoz ’23 shared how his Hispanic American identity was shaped by life in his primarily white town, which was nonetheless awash with diversity.
Raised in suburban South Jersey, Reyes-Muñoz — a first-generation American and college student, co-president of Harvard Undergraduate Latinx in Finance and Technology, and Crimson business associate — paints a picture of his life like something out of what I would imagine the American dream is supposed to be.
He said he felt comfortable navigating the racial boundaries that fracture American life with ease. His realized American dream has included friends and mentors of different backgrounds supporting and uplifting each other in the name of community. That said, even though Reyes-Muñoz’s life so far has been reflective of the best parts of the American experience, he is acutely aware of his role as the role model he never had for the next generation of Hispanic Americans interested in finance and STEM careers. Reyes-Muñoz said that, at Harvard, “being different makes me similar” because of the diversity of backgrounds people attending come from.
There is diversity in every community as long as someone is willing to look for it, but to look at the United States and ignore racial diversity while prizing other forms of diversity does a tremendous disservice to the students who come to Harvard College looking to expand their world view. Our debate surrounding affirmative action is fundamentally flawed when we contrast race-based affirmative action with “race-neutral” alternatives because race-neutrality does not exist in the context of a world in which racial categories were socially constructed to be important.
Yet, affirmative action need not be anathema to our belief in individualism because every individual has a unique experience with race that inflects our community with invaluable experience.
For Harvard, or any other school for that matter, to be “race-neutral” would not mean that race would not impact admissions, but that in place of an aspirational vision of an equitable society, the current racial status quo would select future incoming classes before admissions officers ever have a chance to read over applications.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column normally runs on alternate Mondays.
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