(This article was featured in our print issue, which was published on Nov. 10, 2012.)
Every year, the students at Northwestern face down a crisis. Two years ago it was the infamous sex toy demonstration. Last year, it was the contention surrounding race relations and diversity on campus. As the weeks dragged on, there were divisive discussions about diversity reports, quotas, and new administrative positions. When we left campus last spring, the debate was still far from over.
Given the freshness of the wounds gouged by the “Racist Olympics” and the ensuing melodrama, I was shocked to see Northwestern’s administration jump back into the discussion about race by filing an amicus brief supporting affirmative action in the Fisher v. University of Texas case currently before the Supreme Court.
My knee jerk reaction was one of distaste and discomfort. You mean admissions officers at Northwestern are judging people by skin color and not by academic qualifications? Isn’t that the definition of racism?
Let me first state that Northwestern’s goals are laudable. In striving to have a campus filled with students from different backgrounds, the administration is seeking to make Northwestern a place where we can broaden our understanding of the world. As a world-class university, that end is an absolute necessity. They’re just going about it the wrong way.
There are several reasons to find affirmative action disagreeable.
First, affirmative action creates a “mismatch” between students and schools. When students are admitted to schools where they don’t academically measure up to their peers, many struggle and often switch into less-demanding majors. Studies have suggested that mismatch leads to fewer minorities majoring in hard sciences while simultaneously inhibiting friendships and diminishing the confidence of minority students.
Past this, there is the evident issue of racism. Can using racial preferences to combat opposing racial preferences in the past really be the best route to bringing diversity to campus?
Third, there are seriously patronizing undertones to racial preferences. In valuing an African-American applicant more than an Asian applicant, the university is implicitly assuming that said applicant’s race has, for some reason or another, presented a major obstacle in their lives. Not only does this depict a vision of a racist society that I have fundamentally rejected from meeting a myriad of open-minded people at Northwestern, but it also reflects poorly on how our admissions officers view life as a minority in this country. Do we really believe the quality of someone’s life can be reduced to his or her skin color? What about the infinite array of social, familial, economic or moral difficulties any single applicant may have faced?
If Northwestern were serious about “diversity”, the administration would care much more about two other types of diversity: intellectual and socioeconomic. I’ve learned much more from my anarchist and communist friends than I have from my professors. And I’ve come to understand a lot more about how the US operates by talking to students from both ends of the income distribution than I have from taking social science classes. Blithely put, diversity is not just skin deep. To reduce it to this would be a grave mistake.
All of that being said, however, there is no justifiable reason for why the Supreme Court should ban Northwestern from using racial preferences in its admissions process. For public schools, such as the University of Texas, the above arguments are more salient, as they should be governed by a desire to adhere to the people’s vision of fairness. But we all chose to come to Northwestern. We all pay (through the nose) to obtain an education that is well-rounded and that allows us to interact with people of varying backgrounds. Wrong though it may be in thought and in practice if not in intent, the Supreme Court should draw a very thin dividing line between the rights of public and the rights of private schools.
The last thing this country needs is more top-down decision making that subverts the ability of individuals and institutions to exercise their liberty in a free society. The idea that it would be a good thing if the decision-making abilities of private institutions were partly replaced with a rigid, formulaic approach dictated and enforced by a centralized power would, indeed, be a fatal conceit.
Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/13/opinion/granderson-affirmative-action/index.html