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Exploring Affirmative Action

What colleges — and college students — get wrong about diversity on campus
Exploring Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court may have ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas to uphold affirmative action in college admissions — but that decision won’t signal the end of campus conversations about race and diversity. And that’s important, says sociologist Natasha Kumar Warikoo, whose research indicates that college students in the United States often misinterpret affirmative action.

While conducting interviews with undergraduates at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford for her upcoming book, The Diversity Bargain, Warikoo discovered that many white students “support affirmative action in as much as it benefits themselves by creating a diverse learning environment.” This framing tends to fuel what Warikoo calls “the diversity bargain,” in which white students support affirmative action as long as black and Latino students on campus do not form their own organizations and friend groups, and whites do not feel overlooked through “reverse discrimination” when they apply for fellowships, jobs, and graduate school.

In a conversation, Usable Knowledge asked Warikoo, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to talk about why students in the U.S. need to understand the historical roots of affirmative action and how colleges can become communities where students can talk about racial difference.

In general, how do college admissions frame their emphasis on creating a diverse student body?

They all use very similar language. When you look at the public information, it’s all about diversity and how diversity creates this very rich learning environment. It can be diversity of talents, diversity of leadership styles, diversity of ways of learning, diversity of background. But it’s interesting that they very rarely actually use the word “race.” It’s instead about how this is going to create this great learning environment for all students.

What’s troubling about that?

I don’t want people to get me wrong. I believe in the diverse learning environment, and I think that diversity of race and ethnicity does improve the educational experiences, not just of white students, but also of students of color.

But the problem is that just stopping there ignores what affirmative action has historically been about. If you think about its early roots in higher education in the 1960s, it was about opening the doors of these places that had very few African American students on their campuses. The universities were worried that the race riots happening all around them were going to spill onto their campuses. They wanted to be seen as leaders and forward thinking about race and racial inclusion. So it was not about a diverse learning environment. It was about racial justice. And we have to recognize that that is part of the reason we have affirmative action.

The other reason why it’s so important is for creating a diverse leadership — having a leadership in society that looks like the people who live in society. And that’s symbolic. My kids are growing up in a society where it’s just normal to have a black president. It’s normal to have a woman who may be the next president. That’s not the panacea to everything, but it’s a start. And one way to do it is to create diverse student bodies in select colleges to then take up those leadership positions.

What happens when students don’t understand that the purpose of affirmative action isn’t only to create a diverse environment, but also to support people of color?

I think that lack of understanding leads to this “diversity bargain” that I discuss in my book. Beyond that, more generally, there’s a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that we have ongoing racial inequality in American society. There are so many ways in which race continues to shape our lives in American society, and ignoring that leaves us very little hope for changing it. Even when students want to talk about race, they don’t have the tools or understanding to dig into these conversations.

So how can colleges talk about race and diversity in ways that foster a productive understanding of racial difference?

One of the things that I think about is just fostering an understanding of American history. Students often learn that we had slavery in this country, and then we had segregation, and then we had the civil rights movement, and here we are now. But that’s not the whole story, right? To give you an example, students don’t learn about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from first-time homeowner loans, which created residential segregation and poverty in African American communities. They don’t learn that the GI Bill that led to social mobility for a lot of working class whites in the 1950s didn’t include nondiscrimination clauses, so African Americans couldn’t access it fully. There are so many moments in which African Americans were systematically excluded by seemingly race-neutral policies that weren’t explicitly Jim Crow laws, and I think an understanding of that history would go a long way.

Another thing is providing opportunities for students to develop the tools to engage with each other. A lot of campuses try this in fits and starts; the way you do it is to provide opportunities for dialogue. Those kinds of initiatives signal to students that talking about race is important, that we expect this of them — and that it is hard, and everybody’s going to make mistakes, you will offend someone, someone will offend you, but this is part of the process.

Any other suggestions?

The way we talk about admissions and meritocracy is, to me, also flawed. This idea that somehow there is this magic formula that these colleges do and then they get “the best” students in the country on campus is false. Yes, absolutely, students at elite colleges worked incredibly hard in high school. But there are so many people who work incredibly hard, who don’t have the same opportunities, or don’t have access to all of these resources that other students have.

So a very simple thing is, stop publishing those admit rates. There’s this belief that the lower it goes, the better a college is. It fuels this idea that this is the best of the best. And then, you have a college where black and Latino students are pretty severely underrepresented, and that’s telling students that, well, most of the best of the best are white and Asian, not black and Latino. And I think that’s not true.

Do you think colleges should overtly say that they strive to create a diverse campus not only so everyone benefits, but also because they’re committed to helping students with fewer opportunities succeed?

Absolutely. And that “we’re committed to addressing racial injustice in American society.” They can and should say that.  

Additional Resources

  • Read about the tension between free speech and safe space on college campuses, and how educators can foster an intellectually challenging — but safe — environment.


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