In response to Chen’s attack on affirmative action: the truth

Affirmative action is necessary to right historical, systemic wrongs against marginalized communities

Earlier this week, the Hustler published an opinion piece by Harrison Chen, entitled “Harvard, the buck stops here.” Admittedly, I was glad to see the piece; it offers a true testament to the character of the University as a place where students can feel comfortable sharing their opinions on issues of consequence. Nonetheless, I find Mr. Chen’s account to be lacking even a surface level consideration of history or the real-life implications of what he is proposing.  

Setting aside the misleading (and in some cases plainly inaccurate) sources that Chen cites as evidentiary support for his claim, I want to point out three realities that plague his analysis.

First, Chen implies that a student’s grades and standardized test scores ought to be the sole factor in determining whether that student should be admitted to a college or university—the implication being that the Black and Hispanic students who get into Harvard do so with substantially lower scores than their Asian and White peers, and thus are not there on merit. This assumption suffers from a faulty generalization.  While it may be true that the national average on standardized tests is lower for Black students than other ethnic groups (because of the racial and wealth disparities in standardized testing), the Black and Hispanic students who get into Harvard routinely score above 1400 on the SATs and have 4.0+ GPAs. I don’t know how large Mr. Chen thinks the “bump” is, but it is certainly true that no one gets into Harvard with a 1200 (for example). Not even the Black kid he’s thinking of.

It shouldn’t be so easy to forget that a series of discriminatory laws and policies have resulted in incredible inequalities

Furthermore, more than 5,000 students apply to Harvard every year with perfect math and/or verbal SAT scores—that’s enough to fill the class twice over. How does one decide between these students? It’s simply not practical to say that universities should only look at numbers, especially when success in the “real world” requires so much more than knowing how to finesse a test. Such a narrow view of what constitutes “merit” only serves to disadvantage students who’ve shown success-linked traits like grit and other non-cognitive skills.

Secondly, Mr. Chen’s analysis is devoid of any historical perspective. It shouldn’t be so easy to forget that a series of discriminatory laws and policies have resulted in incredible inequalities with regard to wealth, academic achievement, housing and more between Black families and white families (and Black families and Asian families, if we’re being honest). These gaps don’t disappear when students apply to college.

What Mr. Chen is really asking, then, is that Black students and other marginalized students—who were born into a society which subjected them to such discrimination—compete as if that discrimination didn’t exist.

Until Black kids enter kindergarten or high school or the workforce with the same opportunities for success as their white and/or Asian counterparts, affirmative action policies are a necessary part of the formula for making sure that a greater number of Americans have access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as promised over two centuries ago.

Finally, it should be said that if there were large-scale abuses of affirmative action at Harvard, the greatest percentage of beneficiaries could likely be found among Harvard’s white students. Whether it’s the vestige  of legacy admissions, the fact that whites are more likely to score higher on paper “personality ratings” than Asians (even though no such difference exists during interviews), or simply the heightened consideration given to children of faculty or staff, Harvard goes the extra mile to buttress its white plurality—to the detriment of Asian students, perhaps.

Further,  Mr. Chen should think more deeply about why this suit is being brought. I’m convinced that the end result will not be any semblance of “justice” for the Asian students who allege discrimination, rather an attempt to dismantle affirmative action for other, more sinister reasons. We need only look to the fact that the main proponent behind the campaign is the same one from Fisher v. UT-Austin, a suit in which a mediocre White female student alleged that “her spot” was taken by a less qualified minority student.

In the most basic sense, we need affirmative action for marginalized and underrepresented groups because, for the overwhelming majority of our history, we affirmatively acted to keep them out. In this way, admission to college has never been based solely on academic merit, but on a desire to advance some societal ideal. Fortunately, today, that ideal is diversity and inclusion because we have decided that colleges ought to reflect the world they are sending students into.

Damonta Morgan is the 2017 Young Alumni Leader, and a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ddm2145@tc.columbia.edu.

5 COMMENTS

  1. There are two solutions for us minorities (excluding Asians and Indians because they are basically white privileged and don’t count as minorities).
    We either push for a society where we all start on an even ground and changing our culture to be more white, Jewish or Asian,
    or we ask white people to lower the bar for us.

    I grew up in a less than ideal place and I’m pretty sure affirmative action helped me get in. I wish I didn’t need it and I often wonder if I would have gotten in if I was given a fair shot.
    I want that fair shot. I don’t want this half measure that makes me question whether I deserve to be here. I hate wondering I’m the token black guy at work or if I’m on the same level.

    I don’t think we should advocate for affirmative action and act like people against it are racist. Maybe they are, but I can also see that in the same way I was penalized by my background, Asians feel like they are marginalized based on something they couldn’t choose either. We should have empathy and focus on the real problem, which is a bad educational system that gets less than 1% of our taxes.

  2. The legal acceptance of affirmative action for admissions is narrowly defined to align with improving the educational experience (for all parties)… Through exposure to diverse perspectives.

    In this context, the “correct past wrongs” argument is demonstrably unconstitutional and in the views of the court “illegal”

    With respect to the second point, statistical review has shown race to be a determinant factor on admissions which preferentially favors blacks and lationos. The argument that white students receive preference is demonstrably false. In support – when looking at comparable candidates (statistically), admissions outcomes can be shockingly different between URM and non-URM students.

    As for the third point, why not consider economic or other factors if the intent is to provide an equal playing field? Is it correct for the progeny of an affluent west african immigrant (disproportianly well represented in elite colleges) to receive strong preference relative to an impovershed white applicant from West Virginia.

    By emphasizing race (in my view illegally), we diminish the consideration given to these other factors.

  3. The author is misleading when he implies that black students at Harvard all have high SATs and grades. It’s been admitted that Asian students have to score 200 points higher than black students to have an equal chance of admission.

    And Harvard is not the real problem. The problem is across the board. At the university where I taught the mean SATs and grades for black and Hispanic students were about one standard deviation lower than that of whites and Asians. As one might expect the graduation rate for those students was also a standard deviation lower. They would have done better at a university for which they were better prepared.

    • Uhm, that claim is problematic statistically as I am willing to bet SIGNIFICANTLY more Asians apply to Harvard and other super elite/elite schools. Given the low amount of URMs that apply in the first place (versus other demographics), if even a few that are “qualified” (let us keep it real, you don’t need near a 1600 or 1500 to thrive at most elite universities) and because of the sample size, that is likely to result in a higher % being admitted than significantly more (in raw numbers) Asians being admitted for their high scores. I suspect that a bigger range of Asians apply, so if they want to boost their stats just because (and not because they actually think that 1500-1600 is so much more qualified than 1400), they may take advantage of that larger pool to select those who have higher stats even if they do not have to. In addition, it is kind of irrelevant, because at most elite schools, Asians outnumber (if you count domestic and international or even just domestic) both URMs which would make them over-represented by like 300%+ at most schools whereas URMs are struggling to be represented on par with the population (in fact, one can even note that whites aren’t either). By what percent would we like certain ethnic groups to be over or under-represented. Elite admissions, by virtue of the application volume versus cohort size will never be “fair” and many super qualified people over a range of GPAs and scores (yes, because even those without perfect scores are super qualified). I find this narrative that pits Asians against URMs quite dangerous, but unsurprising. Classic divide and conquer. Find an issue that brings out the selfishness in minorities and causes them to attack each other under the guise of “fairness” in a process that can really no longer be fair, AA or not. These places will find a way to construct the composition or vibe/environment they want to regardless of if a formal policy is in place that explicitly allows them to do so. Different schools have different vibes and have learned how to construct it by selecting based upon a myriad of factors. Being “academically qualified” is a minimum requirement and “academically qualified”/high potential to thrive at said schools encompasses quite a large range of scores and GPA. Let us not pretend that they must select the absolute highest scores to have a high caliber student body. At some point, some schools only do that to impress ranking agencies. Stanford clearly CHOOSES to select in a way that results in them having lower scores than Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, WUSTL, and Vanderbilt but is Stanford really less prestigious/have worse students than them. Their track record says no. They, as well as some other elites are selecting in a way that yields a certain institutional character and quality, which may involve selecting for very specific personal characteristics, as well as demographic composition once it is clear that the student can likely do the work solidly.

      AA or not, it will not matter to privates. They will find a way to do what they feel works for them. Take the hint: Harvard clearly denies so many talented and qualified Asians and applicants from other demographics who go elsewhere (other elites and some non-elite privates/publics) yet still outperforms these other elite schools when it comes to outcomes (post-grad scholarships/prizes, and production of Nobels, etc). Harvard doesn’t see a need to change as they have a sky-high SAT/GPA range without admitting all 1600s (seriously, admitting some more perfect scorers will benefit them little. How much are those perfect scorers benefiting the schools they attend beyond how they make them look for rankings? Clearly not enough to rival Harvard) or more of those from higher scoring demographics as well as really strong post-grad outcomes that likely come from more than just a “Harvard effect” (just the prestige with no evidence of strong training. Certain undergraduate academic programs there are straight up much more rigorous than other elite schools and thus they feed extremely well into certain grad. programs or post-grad opps IF you do well in them).

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