SCHWARTZ: Acting affirmatively


Last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest major legal challenge to race-based affirmative action programs. A few days earlier, the deans of the Harvard and Yale law schools published a joint opinion piece in the Washington Post (based on their joint amicus brief) calling on the Supreme Court to leave the program intact.

The deans write about law school admissions, but central elements of their case certainly seemed to cohere with my experiences as an undergraduate here. And so whatever the Court’s specific conclusions in this case, I hope the majority leaves room for educational institutions to continue promoting the values the deans defend.

The deans’ argument was simple: Their institutions aim to accept the “best possible students” and to “assemble the best possible class.” In their experience and estimation, both of these goals require the consideration of race as part of a “holistic evaluation” process.

After all, in determining what qualifies someone as “the best possible student,” law schools often search for amorphous and intangible qualities. Harvard and Yale seek not just academic merit, but indicators that applicants will somehow “give back to society.” Most of us think this is perfectly appropriate. Naturally, unscientific judgments about character should include all aspects of an individual’s biography — and racial identity can be an essential piece of a revealing personal narrative.

Similarly, the deans argue that the assembly of the “best possible class” might take into account considerations of racial diversity. Personally, I’ve often been skeptical of “diversity for education’s sake” arguments. A central premise of a liberal arts education is that we can learn a great deal about human experience from books and lectures. Besides, given the myriad of different ways we assess merit, diversity within a meritocracy is inevitable anyway — so the deliberate construction of diversity strikes me as artificial and unnecessary.

Recently though, I’ve had a change of heart. What’s more, I largely owe it to some insensitivity within our very own Yale Daily News.

Every year, shortly after the News changes its leadership (through an egregiously time-consuming and self-important elections process), the outgoing managing board publishes a “joke issue” ridiculing the previous year. The content is traditionally outlandish and ridiculous, and so the News refrains from posting the issue online.

This past joke issue contained a story chronicling a particularly farcical and circus-like paternity battle, and it used slang and tropes closely identified with certain strands of urban African-American culture.

Six months ago, I probably wouldn’t have been troubled by the article. Ambiguous slang and meaningless apostrophes would have struck me as fair game for mockery. These tropes seem to add needless ornamentation, reflect poor education, and are simply incorrect uses of the English language. Why not mock it? Aren’t ignorance and dismissal of social norms essential elements of paternity circuses? Criticism of the piece for racial insensitivity would have irritated me. I would have argued that the very act of associating these apparently shallow linguistic deviations with African-American identity was the true offense.

But then I started talking to Julian. Julian has strong opinions on the cultural significance and legitimacy of these dialectic tropes — what’s more, he intentionally and actively employs them. And he does so without the characteristic silliness, unintelligible theorizing and self-righteousness of some activists and academics. And so I came to see the mocking of “K’rystal” and “trippin’” differently.

I realize that even relating this story will trigger eye-rolling and smug charges of Orientalism. After all, there is something that feels trite and self-congratulatory about “White guy talks to black guy and understands racial identity and racism better.”

But some truths are trite precisely because they are true. And those rolling their eyes at my parochialism are just as limited by their own orthodoxies; they understand as little about the perspectives of the joke article’s well-intentioned authors as I do about the linguistic patterns outside of the New York Jewish community. We all could do with a dose of humility.

And so we return to the question of race as a factor in admissions. On the level of my own experience, the deans seem right: race is still important, and the cultural identities that surround race are still woefully misunderstood. Moreover, one student’s ability to embody and articulate a perspective can play an important role in another’s education.

So however the justices rule, I hope they preserve space for the kind of values and processes the deans articulate. Ruling otherwise would do higher education a monumental disservice.

Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at


  • RexMottram08

    Your friend Julian is uncivilized. His language is sloppy, and his mind weak.

  • River_Tam

    There’s something particularly stupid about the argument that we need black/hispanic/n8v students at Yale because they’re integral to white people’s education.

    • joematcha

      But isn’t the “not poorly framed” version of this argument that each group needs each other for everyone’s education? I would include gender (women are obviously not a minority, but are treated as other and lesser) and socio-economic diversity, as the two other major categories that provide perspective outside one’s own experience.

      Practically speaking in our country and world what we have needed is white people, white men in particular, to be taught about diversity so as to not make the world even shittier since they held the most power and influence. But in reality everyone’s education benefits greatly from the inclusion of diversity.

      • ldffly

        “I would include gender . . . . . and socio-economic diversity, as the two other major categories that provide perspective outside one’s own experience.”

        I was probably in the lowest 10% of income and wealth backgrounds when I was at Yale. (Though during the 70s, the College and the graduate school enrolled a considerable number of students who were middle class kids.) I honestly don’t believe that I contributed spit’s worth to anyone’s education in virtue of my family’s economic background. I don’t think that those who were wealthier than I contributed anything to my education simply because they came from a family with more money.

        • joematcha

          That’s interesting. If you happen to see this reply and care to elaborate, would you mind telling me why you think that is?

          My personal experience was the opposite. I spent a great deal of my time as an undergrad explaining to people how life as a ward of the state and then an emancipated minor was and how institutional policies at Yale and governmental policies on both the federal and state level affected people in circumstances like mine. I also spent a lot of time asking Northerners who constantly disparaged the South if they had ever been past the Mason-Dixon line, to which the majority answered no or said they’d only been to DC.

          While I don’t think I explicitly taught anyone anything, I do think I was able to challenge a lot of ignorant thoughts and naive assumptions, which hopefully helped the individuals who espoused them become more critical of their own ideas in positive ways.

      • River_Tam

        > But isn’t the “not poorly framed” version of this argument that each group needs each other for everyone’s education?

        No, because the entire framing of this is the idea that these minority students have interacted with (and perhaps been trodden upon by) white people, while the converse isn’t true. Whiteness is taken prima facie as a sign of ignorance, while inclusion in a minority group is seen as a mark of a worldly person from a ‘diverse’ background. It’s the magical negro/noble savage trope dressed up in academic language.

        It is both mathematically obvious (it’s much harder for minority students to have gone through life only interacting with people of their own racial background) and empirically obvious (particularly because minority students from predominantly white areas are probably going to end up stronger candidates than minority students from all-minority areas) that minority students at Yale have interacted with white people in the past more than the reverse.

        So no, the argument usually doesn’t include ‘we want to teach black kids to interact with white kids’! Because it’s 1) considered unnecessary, and 2) sounds pretty paternalistic when you frame it like that.

        • 2016er

          That’s not the argument at all. The argument is that everyone in a college community benefits from diversity. White, black, man, woman, rich, poor, liberal, conservative: everyone benefits from being around people with different points of view from their own.

          • LtwLimulus90

            I’m sorry, but you’re way to slow to argue with River_Tam here, 2016er. You basically just said “Nuh uh” and didn’t follow up. #clearlyafreshman

          • River_Tam

            > White, black, man, woman, rich, poor, liberal, conservative: everyone benefits from being around people with different points of view from their own.

            I didn’t realize ‘black’ and ‘white’ were points of view.

  • basho

    Whether affirmative action is good for education or not has nothing to do with its constitutionality

  • Stephanie_Nichole

    One of the reasons I disagree with affirmative action is that it makes assumptions about race and personal experience. I’m not necessarily opposed to taking personal experience into account during the admissions process, but checking a box for race and ethnicity is not the best way to convey that information. I am Hispanic. I also grew up in an upper-middle class, predominantly white area. I would guess that my personal experience is going to be similar to most people fitting that description, and certainly not defined by the fact that my last name is in Spanish.

    • ycollege14

      Race is one of many factors considered in admissions. It will not gain a candidate entrance, nor deny them the possibility of acceptance. We also have to remember that there are are inherent biases in our society that while not perhaps obvious, are nevertheless present and impactful on things such as job acceptance, being questioned without reason by police, pay scales, etc. For example, in 2002 professors from MIT and the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business performed a study which found that “job applicants with white-sounding names have a 50 percent greater chance of getting a callback for an interview than those with black-sounding names, even when qualifications are indistinguishable”. Making higher education more accessible to minority students helps to decrease the negative impact of these biases.

      Dismissal of affirmative action also ignores the fact that from around 1945-1955 there was a massive essentially affirmative action push for whites (that blacks and people of color were shut out of) including the GI bill, the FHA loans, Social Security) that allowed white families to move into the middle class and increasingly into college. I notice that no one ever mentions cutting policies in admissions and the workplace that privilege women, disabled people, army veterans, etc., which rightfully acknowledge that these people have had to overcome obstacles that their peers have not simply due to either unchangeable factors or great sacrifice. The only difference with “affirmative action” is that it is racialized, and thus controversial.

      Furthermore, if you accept that we are not truly living in a “race-blind” society, how can you then have “race-blind” admissions? Affirmative action is simply recognizing that there is statistically a huge gap between white and minority educational achievement (high school and college graduation rates) that cannot be accounted for simply by saying minorities are lazier than white students. I could go on (there are many other facets to each side of the debate) but I’ll end with emphasizing that in almost all cases, minority students who are accepted to college would be accepted regardless of their race. They are qualified, hard-working, and deserve to be here as much as any of their white classmates.

      Here’s an interesting discussion of it that you might want to watch:

      • LtwLimulus90

        You’re right about almost everything, with the exception of your first paragraph, where you seem to deny how powerful affirmative action policies are in the consideration of a single applicant. You need to realize, also, that minority students (with the exception of Asian students, for whom the opposite of what I’m about to say is true), regardless of their socio-economic upbringing, have MUCH lower standards for admission in terms of GPA, standardized test scores, and at some schools, general extracurricular involvement. Basically, many minority applications receive admission that would probably not even be considered for admission if submitted by a White or Asian student. This is of course, not true across the board. I know many minority students at Yale who are incredibly impressive and were more deserving than I, a white person, of getting admission here based on success in high school. But while some kind of affirmative action is probably a good thing, and while race can and should be “taken into account”, current affirmative action policies (yes, even at Yale) go WAY beyond just that.

      • lakia

        Here is another interesting study, conducted by Harvard researchers: The Bell Curve. It’s not popular, but it deals with facts rather than feelings.

  • LaBamba

    See…Skull and Bones is valuable after all. It let Yishai meet a black person!

  • jamesdakrn

    Censorship on comments complaining about censorship. Well done.