Sex and the Ivy

Thoughts on Affirmative Action

Filed under: News, Politics, Race — Elle September 30, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

I don’t know if there is a happy medium between meritocracy and diversity, but I hope that this is indicative of its possibility. I’m a pretty staunch proponent of affirmative action, especially when it comes to race (and to a lesser extent socioeconomic status, which is great for low-income kids but not fantastic in terms of racial diversity). Surprisingly, my opinion on the subject is more controversial than my support of mandatory HPV vaccination or same-sex marriage, and I find myself having to justify this viewpoint all the time, even at Harvard and even to my liberal-minded friends. As an Asian American, it seems particularly contradictory for me to take on this view since it’s against my self-interest. So here’s an explanation:

When I started high school, my mother had a plan in mind. That plan involved straight As, perfect SAT scores, and eventual admission to UC Berkeley. Surprisingly, I managed to deliver on the latter without either of the former. But while scores of second-generation Chinese teenagers would’ve killed for my position, I would’ve killed my mother if she forced me to go there. Berkeley’s population, with 42% of students identifying as Asian, was too similar to my alma mater where the student body was 48% Asian. I already lived in a city with the highest proportion of Asian residents in the country. The prospect of spending college in the same minority-majority illusion of my first 18 years was hardly appealing.

Besides, while the children of my mother’s friends were mostly science or engineering majors (stereotypical but reality), I aspired to freelance for New York magazine, toyed with the idea of a sex column, and dreamed of attending journalism school. I wanted to write for the American public — and the public was white, black, and brown, in addition to yellow. And so Northwestern was in, Berkeley was out.

But I never made it to either. Though I initially gave Cal a chance, our love affair (some would call it an arranged marriage) ended abruptly when my 14-year-old self first saw the campus during a February downpour and decided that flipping burgers at In-N-Out would be preferable to the gray prison before me. Four years later, I’d be at another prison — not Northwestern but one that was brick-fortified and ivy-covered. Harvard, however, was redeemed by an inmate population as colorful in personality as it was in skin tone. Best of all, my mother couldn’t argue. I got a plane ticket out of California; she got the pride that came with Crimson parentage.

Nowadays, there are a lot of things I miss about the San Gabriel Valley, where signs came in both English and Chinese (not that I could read the latter) and dim sum was just a short drive or walk away. Boston couldn’t be more different from home. Besides Sunday morning conversations with my mother, I hear Cantonese maybe twice a year here — each time because I’ve made a rare venture into Chinatown. With only one other undergrad hailing from Monterey Park, California — a good friend of mine, thankfully — I find myself in the new position of a minority. But I don’t mind. At Harvard, just about everyone is a minority in some respect.

As much as I complain about how unhappy Harvard makes me sometimes, I question if I’d be more satisfied at a place like Cal. Berkeley is a fantastic academic institution — one I’d recommend to just about anyone, but it’s not the place I’d go to meet people different from myself and it’s not somewhere I’d like to see my little sister at, if only because I think she needs to escape the same high school bubble I was caught in. Admittedly, Harvard is in the enviable position of having an abundance of applicants who are both diverse and equally qualified. Not every school is quite so fortunate, but that’s not an excuse as to why diversity should be lacking, especially since the initiatives at UCLA seem to bring about very tangible results.

Maybe I underestimate how much I would’ve ventured away from the familiar had I gone to Berkeley. Still, for all the autonomy I may have over who I become acquainted with, I doubt that my groups of friends there would be as diverse as they are at Harvard. And though I don’t value my relationship with JB because he’s gay any more than I love CK because she’s black, race — like everything else — still matters. I am positive that my relationships with people of different colors, sexual orientations, religions, etc. shape and influence my world view for the better and that I will be better off when I graduate for having known and loved people who are not mostly white, Asian, or Californian. Perhaps I would’ve met some of them (or their equivalents) anyway, but I know that at Berkeley, it would’ve been much harder to forge a bond with a tongue-ringed five-foot wonder with a Southern drawl and skin several shades darker than my own. And wouldn’t that have been a shame?

17 Responses to “Thoughts on Affirmative Action”

  1. Katie Says:

    I absolutely love the way you write and I enjoy reading your blog tremendously. Are you focusing on journalism at all while at Harvard? You really, really should. Whatever you do, just don’t give it up!

  2. Vivian Says:

    I know exactly how you feel about Berkeley, as I went through the exact same thing with my very Chinese parents. The thing that frustrates me sometimes, is there is a large group of Asians who are racially exclusive, are only friends with or date Asians, and they drive me insane with the idea that we’ll automatically get along because of race, and automatically writing everyone off because of race.

    What I’m curious about, though I’m not sure if you know this information, is the racial breakdown for harvard, like the percentage of various minority groups.

    I go to Georgetown, and was really surprised when I got here, that despite its reputation for being internationally focused, 75% of the student body is white, 10% asian, 10% black, and only 5% hispanic, which seems extremely homogeneous compared to where I’m from. I think you’re truly lucky to end up going to school in a more diverse place.

  3. AMZB Says:

    “Four years later, I’d be at another prison — not Northwestern but one that was brick-fortified and ivy-covered.”

    Harvard isn’t covered in ivy.

  4. Sam Jackson Says:

    AMZB, Harvard does have a fair amount of ivy.

    Lena–good stuff, although one thing that keeps bothering me so much whenever a lot of people are talking about affirmative action is when the selective pressures against asian americans are overly emphasized (not saying you are doing it here, just mentioning–) because, conflicting data that there is, some have said in some places (Jerome Karabel, The Chosen) Asians are in fact discriminated against and that can definitely be true–there are law cases for that where it’s totally in the right. But elsewhere that contention can be corrected for when considering legacy and developmental cases, in some of the data. So, I need some fresher data on it, but I don’t know how strongly I would personally correlate the current case of asian admissions with that of the jews in the past, for example. At least where severity is concerned, which is what some people do!

  5. Sam Jackson Says:

    BTW, Roland Fryer is a cool guy sometimes (he’s mentioned in the article) but I do wish he wasn’t so hostile towards qualitative studies… we picked him as our Keynote at our MLK day activities last year.

  6. Sam Jackson Says:

    Er, just a clarification on the first comment–I didn’t meant that the discrimination was ‘in the right’ but rather that it was ‘truthfully and actually happening’ in a way which is wrong.

  7. M Says:

    I believe that when affirmative action was first instituted, it was at a time when the playing field needed to be leveled. But the best-laid plans of mice and men…

    As liberal-minded as I like to think I am, I’m quite staunchly against affirmative action. I do think it’s become reverse racism and while I don’t have stats to back myself up here, I speak from personal experience(s).

    Race shouldn’t even be a box one has to check off on applications. That’s the first step towards candidates being accepted or denied admission to institutions of higher learning based on merit.

  8. Miranda Says:

    You should mosey on over to MIT if ever you feel too much a minority. I’m not really sure who’s the minority here, but Asians are definitely not in the running.

    I’ve had people say to me that I only got into MIT because I have ovaries, and I’ve had friends who have received comments about only being here because they’re black. It’s a touchy subject.

    Nicely written, by the way.

  9. Isabel Says:

    I do think it’s become reverse racism and while I don’t have stats to back myself up here, I speak from personal experience(s).
    Care to share? I don’t want to make assumptions but I honestly can’t think of something that would make your claim justified.

    Lena: I too am pro-affirmative action. Though I do think SES should be taken into account, and I was a little disappointed that low-income representation went down at UCLA as black representation went up. It’s a complicated matter, but the flaws in the system don’t make the idea inherently flawed (in my opinion).

    That said, for all its ethnic/racial/occasionally socioeconomic (me and my three freshman roommates never would have been at Harvard without financial aid) diversity, something about Harvard still felt a bit homogenous to me, in terms of personality, I guess. Have you ever had that experience? Maybe I just didn’t meet the right people…

  10. Isabel Says:

    Also, for Vivian’s benefit–from the website of the Harvard College Admissions Office:
    Caucasian: 57.5%
    Asian-American: 21.0%
    African-American: 10.2%
    Hispanic-American: 4.2%
    Mexican-American: 3.7%
    Puerto Rican: 1.6%
    Native American: 1.3%
    Other: 0.5%

    Not as diverse as UCLA, perhaps, but not as white as Georgetown. (Incidentally, checking out these stats reminded me of how I wish everyone would switch to two separate boxes for race and Hispanic/non-Hispanic. I’m Hispanic–born a several-generation Puerto Rican, in Puerto Rico–but I am also white, descended mosty from Mediterranean ancestors).

    Also, I just realized these are the stats for admission–not sure where to find the stats for actual attendants.

  11. Elle Says:

    Sam –

    I read The Chosen last year and found a lot of it interesting and eye-opening but I wasn’t half as outraged as I think it was supposed to make me. The legacy/athletic recruitment stuff aside, I still find it really hard to believe that what HYP has been doing can be categorized as discrimination.

    Historically, I think people who have been systematically denied basic liberties, courtesies, etc. because of their race/religion/etc. have undeniably been discriminated against. What troubles me about the idea of saying that Asians are “discriminated” against in the admissions process is that it seems to imply individuals have a RIGHT to a seat at a certain college (Jian Li’s case against Princeton, for example). Princeton is not a restaurant. If they don’t serve the patron with the best stats, it doesn’t mean they’re being racist or discriminatory.

    Colleges ought to be able to pick and choose who they let in on the basis of racial diversity just as much as they should on the basis of geographic diversity. Post-affirmative action, Berkeley feels to me like a very impersonal numbers game whereas I know my peers at Harvard (and myself) were admitted because of what we could contribute to each other’s growth and experience at this university. I think what a lot of AA opponents forget is that the goal of higher education is not just about educating the smartest but creating a class that will make the world a better place. I’m convinced that the world will be far worse off if we don’t increase accessibility to underrepresented minorities.

  12. Tanya Says:

    My school, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, is very homogeneous, so the admissions department has policies to attract minority students. For example, I know a second-generation Philippine whose plane ticket for a campus visit was paid for by Lewis & Clark. But I feel like despite different racial backgrounds, many of the minority students are just as “white” as the white students. I have close friends who identify themselves Puerto Rican, Philippine, and Mexican, but have never spoken Spanish and don’t seem to offer different backgrounds or perspectives because their socioeconomic status (upper-middle class) usually seems to be a bigger factor in their identity than their race. As a whole, I think the students that aren’t upper middle class usually have more diverse opinions and perspectives to offer than the minority students who are.

  13. EternalVirgin Says:

    Wow. Your writing is amazing. It actually gave me chills!

  14. Alfie Says:

    Wow! What a masterful commoditization of race! In the true spirit of consumerism, I would say.

  15. Sam Jackson Says:

    The Jian Li case was somewhat misrepresented by Dan Golden in the WSJ, imo–I was really glad when he (Li) contacted me after I wrote some about his complaint he filed, because it cleared some things up. I blogged it last November. I was referring to the law school (I think) cases where Karabel mentioned some serious discriminatory lawbreakage.

    But the ‘evidence’ presented by Golden in the Li case was such bs, as he only pulled basically quantitative analyses rather than the same qualitative evaluations which–black box though they were–would have contributed to an admission or rejection as the case might have been. But hearing the subject talk about WHY he filed the complaint made me feel a little bit better about it–it didn’t seem as petty or crazy as the article made it first appear.

  16. Elle Says:

    Tanya — I definitely think that there needs to be socioeconomic diversity; I’m a recipient of Harvard’s Financial Aid Initiative myself. However, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that a wealthy minority’s experience is going to be inherently different but no less significant than a lower income white student’s. At Berkeley, for example, a good portion of those admitted (over 30%) qualify for the Pell Grant, which is given to student’s from lower income families, but I wouldn’t exactly call Cal diverse.

    Also, I think a lot of my friends at Harvard would say that my being Asian doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with my identity and that I “act white”, which really just means I seem like a typical, well-assimilated American. Still, that doesn’t mean that my race is not an integral factor in influencing the way I live or the way other people perceive me. It’s those intangibles that make race still significant regardless of what laws that have been passed or strides that have been made.

  17. Gadamer Says:

    Two thoughts:

    1- Ivy league students have an unhealthy obsession with college admissions in general, and Ivy league admissions in particular. All this talk of who got in but shouldn’t've, who didn’t get it but could’ve, how we can - nay, *must* - change the world by letting a few more of the right mix of people into Harvard. It smacks of insecurity and it’s tedious besides.

    2- The Ivy League will never be truly demographically representative of the wider world, because it excludes the mediocre, the ordinary, the struggling, the late-blooming, and the undiscovered talents. Oh, and those whom the world tells, “little is expected of you.” Fine tuning and tweaking elite college admissions will not alter what these schools constitute as a whole: just another system by which elites literally and figuratively replicate themselves down through time.

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