Diversity not race based

lmost everyone agrees with the general tenet that race-based classifications are wrong. The memory of the civil rights movement is fresh enough that we are wary of anything resembling racial discrimination. We are told, however, that affirmative action programs are the exception to that rule, that they are a necessary and acceptable form of racial preference. They are neither, and actually do more harm than good. There is no good reason for our school to cling to it.

Some justify affirmative action by pointing out that some races are simply better off than others. Affirmative action, they say, is a way of overcoming tangible economic and educational inequalities. They point out that achievement must be put into its context: an impoverished but dedicated kid from an Indian reservation with a 1400 on his SAT’s would probably do very well at Williams, maybe even better than the tutored, preppy white boy with the 1600. But the students’ races are not central to that example; it is their respective levels of opportunity which are of significance. If the first had been a poor, white West Virginian mountain boy, and the second Colin Powell’s son, the outcome should be no different. Affirmative action makes a distinction where fairness shows none.

We often hear of another accomplishment of affirmative action, that of diversity. Everyone knows how important diversity of experience, background and opinion are to have at a college. Admissions offices look at all kinds of non-academic factors to ensure real diversity, from an applicant’s essay to his/her family history. Race, they say, is an equally important (or, at the College, a much more important) factor. However, as an example will show, this is simply not true.

I’m from a mainly white, middle-class Northeastern town. Diversity of experience, for me, might consist equally in meeting minority students from inner city Chicago and white kids from the deep South. I wouldn’t gain much in the way of diversity by meeting more people like my minority friends from high school, whose background and experiences are very similar to my own. In fact, my future roommate and I are not at all “diverse”; we have similar interests, opinions and experiences, despite being brown and white, respectively. The problem with affirmative action is that it substitutes diversity of race for actual diversity. Its fundamental assumption is that we are to be judged not just by the content of our character, but by the color of our skin. This kind of judgment is as racist now as it was at the time of Martin Luther King.

In opinion pieces this year, several students have made the claim that skin color somehow determines character. They have pointed out that their experiences have been intertwined with their cultural history. They have, in effect, confused race with culture. While some people may consider their race an integral part of their cultural background, others may not. A genuine search for diversity would look past color to more fundamental characteristics.

The Admissions Office could play a numbers game, saying that it is efficient to look at race, since as a group minorities are more diverse than whites or Asians. But even if that is true, it exemplifies the worst kind of reductionism. Suppose (for purposes of this example) that tall people are more likely to play a sport than short people. What if, rather than studying high school athletic records, Admissions just gave a “plus” to all tall people? No one would accept this. We would demand that Admissions do its homework and find real athletes. In the same way, we should demand real diversity, rather than just lazy over-generalizations.

Ironically, these same reductionist arguments support both affirmative action and racial profiling. Police departments argue that since blacks commit more crimes than whites, they should be allowed to use race as “one factor” in determining whom to pull over. Anyone who recognizes racial profiling as unfair and racist should oppose affirmative action as well.

Affirmative action is also harmful to minorities. Our Multi-Cultural Center has had complaints of students “being called on to bear the burden of representing a particular group or position.” No one likes being turned to for “The [Black, Latino, Arab, etc] Opinion.” What few realize is that this is the harvest of affirmative action. When you make some students valuable to the school just because of their ethnicity, it’s only logical that they be valued for the same reason. Affirmative action rests on the premise that there is such a thing as a “Black Opinion,” thus perpetuating stereotypes and preventing true integration.

Affirmative action also creates an atmosphere of low expectations. There is at least an implication that minorities wouldn’t otherwise succeed in a real meritocracy. Of course, there is nothing inherent about skin color that affects academic merit; it is this belief that minorities actually need affirmative action which poisons racial discourse.

The College depends upon a policy that is generally unfair, one that acts as a lazy substitute for truly helpful measures while duplicitously hurting race relations. We should eliminate it, and instead actively address real disadvantage and real diversity.