December 4, 2013

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: A Flawed Approach to Diversity

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When Lanya Olmstead, the daughter of a Taiwanese-American woman and Norwegian-American man, filled out her college applications a few years ago, she left one box conspicuously blank:  “I don’t want to put ‘Asian’ down,” she told the Associated Press in 2011, “because my mother told me there’s discrimination against Asians in the admissions process.”

Was her mother right?

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that she is. A 2009 study by sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford revealed that, at private colleges, an Asian applicant must score 140 points higher on the SAT to have an equal chance of being admitted as a white student.  Ron Unz, writing in The American Conservative, has found that as the population of college-age Asians in the United States has increased rapidly over the past few decades, the percentage of Asians enrolled in each of the Ivy League schools has remained surprisingly flat at between 15 percent and 18 percent. When California’s Proposition 209 mandated race-neutrality in admissions at public colleges in 1996, the percentage of Asians enrolled at some of the most prestigious California public universities jumped over the span of just a few years.

The truth is that the precise extent to which any institution discriminates on the basis of race — including Cornell — is impossible to discover. Universities claim to use a “holistic” admissions process, where all parts of an individual’s application are given their proper attention. The problem is that there is no objective way to determine how much relative value ought to be placed on particular characteristics. Few of us know, though many of us have tried to guess, the precise importance that different universities place on things like academic aptitude, athletic ability, musical talent or having a certain skin color. This lack of transparency prevents the larger community from questioning what gets taken into account when admissions decisions are made.

When affirmative action was first implemented at many universities, it was driven by a desire to harm certain student groups. We know now that Harvard’s original affirmative action program was designed to limit the number of New York Jews in attendance. Nowadays, the people who support race-conscious admissions policies have good motivations; they want to give opportunity to students who they feel face have hardship because of their racial identity.  But those who want our University to increase the weight given to a student’s “under-represented minority” status in order to get Cornell’s racial demographics more in line with those of the country must know that the necessary effect of their policy will be to discriminate against Asians. After all, our University will never “look like the rest of the country” in terms of race so long as Asians, who constitute about 6 percent of America’s population, are more than 16 percent of the undergraduates on this campus. Should we be surprised that students who advocate for race-based affirmative action, often on the basis of it being an “anti-racist” policy, do not seem to care that their policy hurts a historically oppressed minority?

Not at all. Our present way of looking at race and diversity is riddled with contradictions.  Chief among them is the paradoxical belief that the way to bring people together across racial lines — to move beyond the divisions of the past — is to first focus on race.  By starting from such an illogical premise, we doom ourselves to produce results that are far different from our intentions when we pursue racial diversity, no matter how benevolent our motivations are.  Why should we be surprised that diversity programs that are supposed to make us proud of who we are cause some of us to shield our identities on our college applications? Why should we be surprised that colleges that claim to want to break down stereotypes divide us into crude and extremely broad categories like “Asian” and “Hispanic” and treat us differently on that basis?

But the harm in our flawed mindset on racial diversity does not just lie in its own contradictions. By focusing on race, we prevent ourselves from focusing on what people actually bring to the table rather than how they look. A university should be about having ideological diversity, not about having a certain percentage of its student body with particular immutable characteristics like skin color. As we place a higher and higher value upon the social construct of race, we place relatively lower value on discussing the values and ideas that determine who we really are. It is time for us to rethink our conception of diversity.