October 6, 2014

DUGGAL | It’s Not as Good (or as Bad) as You Think

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By HEBANI DUGGAL

Ambiguous pronouns are my favorite way to drive an English professor (or anyone, really) insane. There’s something especially entertaining about watching mild confusion turn to frustration (and eventually anger) as someone tries furiously to figure out what specifically you’re referring to. People like to know things, or, at least, they like to believe they know things. Take that privilege away, and there’s little they won’t do to gain it back.

Take the title of this particular column, for example. “It” could refer to any number of things. “It” could refer to the 20 BRBs I have left in my account, a fact I’ve been told multiple times I should be far more worried about than I am. “It” could refer to the number of times I’ve called my parents to tell them I miss them in the last week, a number that’s entirely unrelated to my realization that I am broke, and it’s the first week of October. “It” could even refer to the essay I turned in a few minutes ago that was filled with ambiguous pronouns I’m sure my GPA will thank me for later. However, “it,” in this case, refers to a topic that’s a lot like an ambiguous pronoun itself — everyone has an opinion about it, yet very few people have a clear idea about to what it is referring to. “It” is affirmative action in higher education.

It’s not as good (or as bad) as you think. Actually, let’s remove what you think from this conversation entirely and focus on what we know instead. Race as a legitimate factor in college admissions was a notion first challenged and addressed by the Supreme Court in 1978 in the case Regents of University of California vs. Bakke. Alan Bakke, a white applicant, was denied admission to the university twice even though minority applicants with significantly lower standardized testing scores were admitted. The Supreme Court’s decision set the precedent that while race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, the use of such inflexible quotas as the school had set aside was not. Fast forward to April 22 of this year:  Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in which the Supreme Court successfully runs away from taking a solid stance on affirmative action, and instead confirms the constitutionality of the states’ amendment process (an issue no one was too concerned about).

While it has upheld the constitutionality of certain aspects of affirmative action, the Supreme Court has more recently been addressing the issue of affirmative action with a hesitancy that mirrors the attitude with which most people approach the issue as well. Personally, I think of affirmative action in higher education as an issue with two facets: race and socioeconomic status. It would be unfair to consider one without the other, and it would be unfair to disregard both entirely. In Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s 58-page response to the Schuette case, there are a few sentences that make her point most powerfully — “Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’” Race and its influence on education and opportunity is not something that can be conveyed in numbers and data; it is a collection of small experiences, experiences that build up to become a disadvantage, a barrier to future opportunities. Socioeconomic status, however, is tangible. It can be compiled into statistics and used to show the difficulties certain students face.  In fact, the strong correlation between higher test scores and higher incomes should come as no surprise; families with higher incomes can afford to send their children to SAT prep courses and advanced tutoring, thereby creating an advantage lower income applicants do not have access to.

Race and socioeconomic status matter, but they are not the only factors that matter. To define an applicant by only his or her circumstances is to fail in the purpose of creating an environment in which an individual can be successful in more ways than one. People are not their circumstances; they are how they choose to respond, to thrive despite the disadvantages they have faced. Affirmative action in higher education should stand as an acknowledgement of an applicant’s circumstances, not an excuse to look only at an applicant’s circumstances. So yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right when he wrote, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” but whenever you feel like evaluating someone, just remember that they are not their disadvantages, but how they choose to respond to them.

Hebani Duggal is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at hduggal@cornellsun.com. Teach Me How to Duggal appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.