It shouldn’t be remarkable that schools consider race in a holistic application process. The existence of systemic racism is itself a strong case to do so. However, according to the Department of Justice, this would violate the Civil Rights Act.
That ruling was the conclusion of a two year, DOJ investigation into Yale’s affirmative action policy, initially spurred by accusations of discrimination from 134 advocacy groups. Chief amongst these groups was the Asian American Coalition for Education. In its final report, the DOJ declared that white and Asian students had been disadvantaged. Specifically, they were found to be losing out against equally qualified black applicants.
Following this, the DOJ has demanded that Yale stop considering the race of applicants for a year. Then, they’d be allowed to submit a “plan,” vetted by the DOJ, to resume the practice. Along with this plan, they must provide a “date for the end of racial discrimination.” A task which I doubt anybody could fulfill. Of course, this is all a continuation of the DOJ’s war on affirmative action, which started with an unsuccessful lawsuit against Harvard two years ago.
One DOJ attorney is quoted in their official statement, claiming that “dividing Americans into racial and ethnic blocs fosters stereotypes, bitterness, and division.” It’s an argument that I heard all the time in high school debate.
“You should be color blind. All stereotypes are harmful.”
As an argument, it’s intuitive enough. Judging people based on their background is abhorrent, no doubt about it. For some pathos, people tend to pair this idea with a reference to Martin Luther King Jr; after all, he dreamt of a world where we weren’t judged for our race. It’s ironic that they’d invoke his name in this context, though. King promoted affirmative action. He knew that oppression isn’t a personality trait, and acknowledging it isn’t a character judgment.
Fundamentally, color blindness doesn’t work as an anti-racist position. If you ignore race, and the subsequent advantages it can confer, how do you explain disparities? That’s when you get into questionable territory. To use a simple example: teachers are likelier to discipline black students who misbehave, and the punishment is harsher. If you ignore the racial component, how do you rationalize this? A color-blind explanation is almost guaranteed to be an unfair one—this student has to be somehow worse than their white peers.
Refusing to acknowledge racial disadvantages is a denial of reality. Incorporating this ignorance into admissions decisions, as the DOJ demands Yale do for an entire year, would be an injustice.
It’s no coincidence that schools like Yale are being targeted. These places offer students a chance to gain privilege; they promise the advantages which wealthy kids already enjoy. Attendance is an opportunity to excel in life. I suppose that the color-blind DOJ can’t countenance an “undeserving” (read: black) student getting that. It has been shown that attending an elite institution drastically increases the upward mobility of disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, affluent white students needn’t worry about their alma mater. To paraphrase Derek Thompson, who compiled this data in his piece for The Atlantic, that’s because these colleges are a stand-in for having rich parents. In other words: they provide networking opportunities, internships and jobs.
Given that, I’ll always support affirmative action. Places like Yale and Duke are in a unique position to redistribute privilege. It’s important that applicants of all backgrounds are fairly evaluated, and that they get a shot at this boon. That being said, should a clear route to success be exclusive to a handful of schools? Better yet, should an institution of this sort exist?
The reason why elite schools can offer such an opportunity is concerning. Namely, they are hubs of privilege themselves; wealth and power congregates on campus, creates inner circles, and perpetuates itself. Yale’s promise to these students is joining the ruling class. It’s vaguely feudal: some rare exceptions get to move up a rung on the social ladder. That is good, of course. Social minorities more than deserve a chance at reaching the top. However, the question remains of whether we want that hierarchy to exist at all.
I’m reminded of the conversation surrounding the marketing of Ms. Monopoly. On its face, Hasbro’s choice seemed benign; feminism is great. However, people wondered if a ruthless capitalist should be a feminist icon. The conceit of monopoly is awful, after all. You hoard land, abuse your opponents, and eventually try to drive them out of business. There’s nothing iconic about that.
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This story helps to explain why some aren’t moved by calls for more women CEO’s. The retort — usually something like “more women financial criminals” — is even more revealing. Their critique isn’t that women don’t deserve leadership roles. They unquestionably do. Rather, it forces us to ask if we want anybody participating in such a toxic power structure.
It’s like if somebody asked you whether America should have a man or woman as our reigning monarch. The real answer is that we don’t want monarchy. Maybe we shouldn’t want any kind of CEO’s, either. Do we need tyrants with seven-figure salaries?
After all, the problem with corporations and sexism runs deeper than their boards of directors. Workplace bullying, hush-up culture and nepotism are still rampant in companies run by women. A lot of people experience corporate life as cut-throat, corrupt and hierarchical. Maybe that’s what the appeal of being CEO is: dominating the food chain. You are the boss, and there is no bigger fish to abuse you. Yes, we should be asking why there aren’t more women in those executive roles, topping that hierarchy. More importantly, though, why are we ok with the existence of such a brutal environment?
When our society is run like a food chain, then someone has to get eaten. That’s inevitable. And if someone has to be beaten down, consumed, then those at the bottom are the likeliest targets. You get punished for being disadvantaged, and rewarded for having privilege.
This is a reality in the realm of tertiary education. So much opportunity is concentrated in Yale – it’s tremendous for anyone going there. That takes away from other places, though. Other schools, where the privilege isn’t as pronounced, cannot offer that same networking advantage. Students have to find it elsewhere. As I already noted, wealthy white students can manage. Normally they’ll have connections. If not, they can afford to find unpaid internships or other entry points. The people who really suffer from this inequality are those who need opportunity the most. They get strapped with debt and very few career prospects. Once again, the educational hierarchy punches down.
In my ideal world, then, Yale wouldn’t exist. Well, not in the way that it’s currently understood. It should just be an excellent school, not a bastion of wealth and influence, too. Of course, I recognize that this issue isn’t the fault of elite institutions. Yale or Duke aren’t responsible for the existence of the 1%, and, as excellent schools, wealthy parents will want their kids going there. In fact, much with the CEO example, it’s hard to know how one should approach fixing the structural issues associated with corporations. That being said, it’s important to acknowledge the problem.
For the time being, while I don’t have a solution to widespread, systemic inequality, I have a suggestion. Let’s have more affirmative action in more places. In fact, let’s expand our list of considerations. Why not acknowledge the role wealth plays in creating privilege; there are poor, disadvantaged white people, too. Nobody starts life on an equal footing, and that should be acknowledged when looking at achievement.
However, while we should push for more women CEO’s, black Duke students, and working class politicians, let’s broaden our imagination. The existence of a hierarchy doesn’t mean we have to accept it. In fact, we’d make pushing for diversity easier if we reformed them. Should society continue to punish people for starting on the back foot, then the fight for diversity will feel like an uphill battle. The DOJ’s actions are one example of that. Yale, as a gateway to privilege, is being pressured to shut that gate on minority students. Affirmative action, and all other attempts to improve disadvantaged folks’ position in the hierarchy, are constantly under assault. They’re seen as “up for debate” at best, or dangerous at worst.
I believe this is because our society is structured to need a loser, and nobody, not least of all our current “winners,” want to volunteer for that. Diversity will manifest itself once equity is achieved—not the other way around. Affirmative action is great, but upward mobility shouldn’t depend on attending one of twenty schools.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.