On the College website, I read the headline “Amherst Files Amicus Brief in Supreme Court Diversity Case.” Though I was not surprised that the College would support the respondent in Fisher v. University of Texas, I was appalled to see that the College prided itself in leading a coalition of so-called elite institutions in supporting the discriminatory practice of affirmative action.
In supporting the University of Texas in this case, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin has emphasized the “educational importance of dialogue among individuals of diverse backgrounds and experiences.” However, what President Martin seems to misunderstand are the actual day-to-day experiences of students on campus. Affirmative action does not inspire dialogue, but rather silences it by justifying prejudices against minority students.
Prior to coming here, I wasn’t labeled as a minority — I was simply Katrin. The fact that I am a Cuban immigrant had not been the defining feature of my identity, but as soon as I stepped on campus, it altered the way faculty and students interacted with me. My first advising meeting at the College left me confused; instead of discussing my academic interests and goals, my adviser felt the need to discuss my ethnic background and to ask about my outsider’s opinion of the American political system, a perplexing question considering I had lived in Florida since I was six. This would be the first of many such interactions. One particularly memorable situation occurred later that year when a floormate of mine, angered by events earlier in the day, screamed out in frustration that the College should accept fewer minority students since many were “idiots.” Perhaps remembering all the help I had given him in a class we shared that semester, he then turned to me and said that I was the exception, I wasn’t one of those students, and I actually deserved to be here. Though his words hurt me at the time, in retrospect, I can understand him. He was wrong is assuming that minority students are not as intelligent as other students, but that incorrect assumption was based on the fact that affirmative action practices do allow for more flexible evaluations of minority applicant’s credentials. This creates a system in which some applicants’ shortcomings are excused without proof of extenuating circumstances, thus creating an undue burden for other applicants competing for admission.
While I could make the argument that affirmative action programs are hurtful to white and Asian students, the truth is that it is most hurtful to the very students it attempts to help. It creates an atmosphere in which highly-accomplished minority students question themselves, wondering whether they would have been accepted had race not been part of the admissions process. There is value in understanding the circumstances that have influenced the lives of students, but it is not okay to assume that an applicant’s racial-ethnic identity defines their experience.
Affirmative action robs minority applicants of agency by positing on them the label of “Other.” It creates the assumption that because a student is part of an underrepresented minority group, he must have different perspectives on issues of academic significance than students that make up the majority. Affirmative action rests on the false assumption that diversity of race creates diversity of thought and that a lack of racial diversity mandates a lack of intellectual diversity. This assumption is insulting to the students of the College because it assumes 1) that we are unable to divorce ourselves intellectually from our personal experiences in order to think critically about issues, and that 2) we, as members of specific racial groups, are homogenous masses that need to be jolted with personal stories completely different from our own in order to fully engage in intellectual exchanges.
Contrary to the College’s expressed belief that diversity enriches student life, a walk around campus proves otherwise. In Valentine, for example, it is easy to identify which three tables are the international student tables, that the predominantly white jocks sit in the back and that Korean students have an affinity for chatting amongst themselves. The College has developed a self-segregating culture. Getting people of different backgrounds together does not automatically lead to positive interactions. For engaged communities to be created, members must feel that they have something of value in common. But when admissions policies put an emphasis on race and ethnicity, they implicitly suggest members of different racial-ethnic groups have very little, if anything, of value in common. In other words, by insisting on diversity for diversity’s sake, the College has created pockets of minority students within the larger white population rather than a community of collaborative learning.
In writing this article, I have purposefully avoided the use of statistical data in favor of anecdotal and observational data. I have not done this because of a lack of data supporting my argument; in fact, research has repeatedly proven the failure of affirmative action programs by showing that acceptances into institutions of higher learning do not ensure success for minority students since many drop out as a result of academic and social stresses. The reason I chose to include these personal stories was to provide a human face to this problem, to show that this is not something that happens far, far away in other colleges and universities, but right here in Amherst. It is for this same reason that I chose not discuss the multitude of other problems caused by affirmative action (like creating incentives for minority applicants to cheat the system or reinforcing skewed power relationships by supporting the idea of the White Man’s Burden). However, I encourage you not to take me at my word, but to look up the information on your own and to discuss this issue. My hope in writing this has been to create enough of a student voice that it cannot be ignored, that President Martin and the Board of Trustees may be forced to reevaluate their commitment to affirmative action so that the next time there is a Fisher v. University of Texas before the Supreme Court, they file in favor of the petitioner rather than the respondent.