The Perils Of Ending Affirmative Action At Harvard University

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The name “Harvard” evokes a picture of an institution on the cutting edge, an image filled with brilliant academics and Supreme Court Justices; life-saving researchers and paradigm-shifting writers. Yet Harvard sits on the precipice of disaster as opponents of affirmative action seek to ruin the school’s ability to intentionally create a diverse learning environment that fosters the creativity, scholarship and leadership the university is famous for.
These opponents of affirmative action — Edward Blum with Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) — are suing Harvard for its race-conscious admissions policies, under the guise that they limit the acceptance of Asian American students. However, SFFA’s true intentions — to pit one marginalised group against another in an attempt to obliterate affirmative action — have never been more obvious.
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Just last week, the group requested that the court block out the voices of student associations like the Association of Black Harvard Women and the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Student Association, both of which I am a member, as well as the Harvard Korean Association, the Harvard Asian American Women’s Association, the Harvard Vietnamese Association, and many more. It is narrow and backward of Edward Blum to attempt to debate the merits of affirmative action by striking students’ lived experiences, especially from a case that is supposedly about improving the experience of students. But I refuse to be silenced.
If affirmative action is erased from Harvard’s admissions process, with it will go the futures of many brilliant students of colour. Affirmative action is designed to address the historical inequities that have devastated communities for generations. It also works to rectify the ongoing systemic bias in school systems and admissions offices that rob students of color of classroom seats in colleges and universities across the country. Today, white students are still four times more likely than Black students to be enrolled in top-scoring schools.
According to The Harvard Crimson, the makeup of this year’s admitted students was 22.7% Asian American, 15.5% African American, 12.2%t Latinx, and 2% Native American — making it the first time that most of Harvard’s admitted class is made up of people of colour. Yet, even going to the best schools in the country does not ensure an equal educational experience for Black students. Most of the Black students I’ve talked to at Harvard have been locked out of an academic opportunity during their schooling. At my predominantly white, Houston high school, one of my duties as a leader for our African American Affinity Group was to create study groups for Black underclassmen because they were excluded from on-campus study groups inherited by their white counterparts. Their parents were not invited to conversations where other parents discussed the best tutors and the tricks of navigating an expensive and stratified private school.
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The inequities continue as standardised testing plays a central role in the college admissions process. It is myopic to compare the test scores of students without taking into consideration the disparate support they have been able to access. In fact, SAT scores are less a metric of intelligence or worthiness of a college education than a determinant of privilege. SATs are constructed year-by-year by discarding the questions that students who do not typically do as well on the SAT (read: underrepresented students of colour and students from low-income communities) do well on, essentially keeping in power those who are already afforded educational opportunity. And when used as a determinant of success in college, SAT scores have little correlation with freshman year GPAs.
Affirmative action is an essential tool for any school that wants to create a diverse and inclusive student body. Admissions officers, like all of us, retain learned societal racial bias and may — consciously or unconsciously — apply this bias in the process, making them more willing to closely consider white students. If these admissions officers are not allowed to take into account the racism that Black, Latinx, and Native American students have experienced that has blocked their opportunities for academic achievement, they will only deepen the racist systems that have locked these students out of the ivory tower for generations.
People of colour make many contributions to Harvard – yet many of our contributions go unrecognised in discussions of the success of affirmative action because they are not easily quantifiable. How do you measure the importance of a student’s presence in a classroom conversation that would otherwise lack the perspective of a person of colour? How do you characterise the impact BlackCAST, Kuumba, Eleganza, HC TEATRO! and individual students of colour have had on Harvard’s arts scene? How do you measure the impact that Black students have had on the spiritual life on Harvard’s campus? How do you measure the impact we have had on activism, ensuring that Harvard is physically safe for Black students and undocumented students, and that it provides health care and unionisation for its most vulnerable workers? These contributions cannot be quantified, but their impact ripples through the Harvard community and beyond.
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This is important, not solely because of how negatively it would affect Harvard to lose the attendance of brilliant Black and brown students, but also because removing affirmative action at our school could have damaging aftershocks at educational institutions across the country. It would limit the college enrolment of people from historically marginalised communities nationwide by blocking their admission. And because we have so much to give to the world that education can help us unlock, everyone else will also lose when these institutions limit access to opportunities for success.
A system that does not use affirmative action does not adequately reflect or correct for the racism students encounter. Failing to account for the systemic denial of educational resources to students of colour, or for the racist tendencies of those in power, would make Harvard itself complicit in racism. And that is not what I want people to picture when they think about the school I love.
Madison Trice is a rising sophomore at Harvard and a member of both the Harvard Black Students Association and the Association of Black Harvard Women. She hails from Houston, Texas.
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