In August, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into a complaint that Harvard discriminated against Asian applicants. The following week, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 appeared on CBS to explain that Princeton does consider race in admissions, but that every applicant is nonetheless given “a fair shake.”
Eisgruber’s candid defense of race-based admissions can be seen as a response not only to the current Harvard investigation, but also to charges of racism in admissions leveled against Princeton in the past two years. Although a 2015 report from the Education Department’s Office For Civil Rights found no evidence of an anti-Asian bias in Princeton’s admissions, documents released this past spring reveal racially charged comments left by Princeton admissions officers on minority applications.
While Eisgruber’s recent remarks clarify the role of race in the admissions process, his “fair shake” is a loaded and ambiguous term. Fairness doesn’t treat race as though it has bearing on the merits of a student’s application. Instead, a truly fair shake would level out the differences in performance resulting from an applicant’s socioeconomic background — a more direct method of addressing inequality among applicants.
I’ve written about the benefits of income-based affirmative action before. Whether it’s palatable to our politics or not, we need to admit that affirmative action in its current form is not as effective as it could be. Universities need to explain what exactly constitutes their idea of “fairness” in admissions. More importantly, they need to define for their prospective applicants the ultimate goal of their affirmative action policy.
If the intended result of affirmative action is solely to foster a diverse student body through the use of quotas, it should not be defined as a fair shake. Fairness implies that admissions officers adopt a neutral view of each application — something that becomes more difficult when considering race, given our implicit biases. Instead, if fairness in affirmative action is understood to provide historical redress and correct for past patterns of minority exclusion, then certainly it is broken in its treatment of applicants of Asian descent. To place higher barriers to entry on Asian applicants because they tend to report higher scores and GPAs is to stand in ignorance of history. We cannot turn a blind eye toward government policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment, which clearly show that white America has had its fair share of anti-Asian discrimination. Our belief that we as a society can accurately measure and decide which minority groups are deserving of “fairness” and in what amounts is misplaced.
As a Eurasian myself, I am not trying to use Asian bias as my “wedge.” Neither do I have a hidden agenda to endorse claims of reverse-racist policies against whites. Instead, I only want to refocus the conversation on fairness in affirmative action where it belongs: on socioeconomic disparity. When we entwine our society’s assumptions about race with the intentions behind affirmative action, we only impede our efforts to give everyone a fair shake.
Today, we acknowledge race is a factor in college admissions without taking any action to relieve the socioeconomic imbalance that affirmative action was intended to address. We need to move beyond this. We cannot allow petty semantics to continue fueling a partisan debate on whether affirmative action is perpetuating racial bias or fostering needed diversity. Instead, we should put our collective intellects toward improving the way that our higher education system promotes social equality for applicants, regardless of race.
Hayley Siegel is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.