The news this past February has been filled with a lot of awkward discussions about race. Pete Hoekstra kicked things off with his ridiculously racist Super Bowl ad. Coverage of the “Amasian” Knicks player Jeremy Lin carried us through most of the month. And we can look forward to more uncomfortable racial dialogue in the coming weeks now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that it will hear an appeal from a rejected UT–Austin applicant challenging the university’s practice of taking race and ethnicity into account during the admissions process.
A suggestion that I hear fairly often is for race-based affirmative action to be replaced with a class-based system of preferences. While colleges should be sensitive to the socioeconomic disadvantages faced by their applicants, I don’t see why those two systems can’t coexist. The classic example given to demonstrate why a class-based system is fairer than a race-based system is that a minority whose parents are both affluent doctors from the suburbs shouldn’t be admitted over a poor Caucasian from the inner city if both applicants have comparable qualifications. But how often does this actually happen? At any rate, I am wary of the implication that minorities who are not economically disadvantaged can’t be disadvantaged in other ways. This kind of thinking has long been used to dismiss the complaints of Asian Americans because their median income and education levels are higher than those of other Americans.
It may seem odd to use the experience of Asian Americans to speak in defense of affirmative action, since Asian Americans are rarely its direct beneficiaries. However, even if Asian Americans are discriminated against in the admissions process, I don’t think it would be productive to endorse policies that would put other minorities at a disadvantage as well. It’s also not immediately obvious that striking down affirmative action would necessarily be helpful to Asians. Interestingly, the major Supreme Court cases challenging university affirmative action policies (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger, Gratz v. Bollinger, and now the UT–Austin case) have all involved white applicants. However, in their oft-cited 2005 paper “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities,” Princeton’s Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung predicted, “White applicants would beneﬁt very little by removing racial and ethnic preferences; the white acceptance rate would increase by roughly 0.5 percentage points. Asian applicants would gain the most. They would occupy four out of every ﬁve seats created by accepting fewer African-American and Hispanic students.” If those numbers are right, it would seem that these “elite” colleges’ policies are discriminatory action rather than affirmative. There’s a subtle but essential distinction—I don’t see any fundamental reason why affirmative action would have disparate impacts on Asian and white applicants unless colleges consciously made it so.
Race isn’t something that can simply be surgically excised from someone’s background. I’ve heard some people suggest that colleges simply stop asking applicants to check the boxes for race. I am sure that will work. After all, other than my surname, my parents’ names, their colleges, my first language, and my appearance, admissions committees would have had no clues as to what my race was. Even if it were feasible for colleges to compare letters of recommendation, extracurricular accomplishments, and academic records without any explicit indication of the applicants’ race or ethnicity, who’s to say that race didn’t influence any of those factors? In high school, it was interesting to note how quickly I was pigeonholed as a math and science person, even though few people from my middle school had ever been impressed with my skills in those areas. Although it’s possible that I just magically became kick-ass at math during the summer before freshman year, I can’t help feeling that the change in perception may have stemmed from the fact that my middle school classmates were predominantly of Asian descent and my high school was much more ethnically mixed. While it’s not exactly a tragedy if people think you’re good at math, it can be frustrating for everything you do to be viewed through the lens of a single assumption.
Although I don’t always agree with the way that affirmative action is implemented, I do think that the underlying principle is sound. Affirmative action’s opponents have argued that college admissions ought to be “color-blind.” This notion sounds great until one realizes it doesn’t really make sense. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I fully support his vision, but it’s obvious that we don’t currently live in a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin. Colleges ought to be aware of what role race has played in their applicants’ lives. For colleges to ignore race and ethnicity when the rest of society doesn’t would not be a progressive act. It would just be willfully ignorant.
Jane Huang is a second-year in the College.