BLACKMON: Diversity on trial

As the Supreme Court takes up a key case this term in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a conservative bench once again threatens to undermine effective affirmative action policies at Yale and across America.

Discussions about race as an admissions factor have always been controversial at Yale. But unfortunately too much of the debate has focused on how affirmative action can reorient our society after centuries of systemic injustices — as if we can somehow erase our history of enslaving African-Americans and discriminating against other races simply by accepting more minorities to the University in 2013.

To be sure, such inequalities still exist and should not be ignored. But theories of cross-generational retribution miss the key benefit of a strong affirmative action policy at Yale: diversity. The University has a compelling interest in protecting our demographic-conscious admission policy because of the robust diversity such admissions flexibilities provide — a logic backed up by 35 years of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Certainly, students have good reason to be skeptical of using demographics as a factor in admissions. In fact, Yale has historically abused admissions standards to exclude certain populations from campus.

Until 1870, Yale College used demographic-conscious admissions policies to exclude African-Americans altogether, breaking that tradition only when Edward Bouchet became the first black man to enroll. Yale similarly excluded women until 1969. And low-income students were largely ignored until the recent Levin-era financial aid reforms.

In short, Yale admissions had traditionally used demographic manipulation to decrease — not increase — diversity at Yale. The admissions office actively strove to keep its student body white, male, Christian and upper-class, completely at odds with the demographic realities of America as a whole.

As a poignant example of such a negative use of demographic-conscious decision-making, Yale instituted unofficial quotas before 1960 on Jewish students to limit its Jewish student population to around 10 percent, in line with the anti-Semitic mores of the time.

But as the Yale Admissions Office began to lift those policies discouraging or outright refusing admission to certain races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the University marched progressively toward a more diverse student body.

In fact, with Yale’s modern commitment to diversity sprawled across nearly every piece of Yale literature, the Admissions Office has flipped the demographic-conscious admissions script on its head, showing that these policies do not have to be a force for exclusion. Instead of using demographics to whitewash the student body, we have instead allowed ourselves the opportunity to use applicants’ cultural backgrounds as a tool to create a Yale more reflective of America.

Through the lens of manufacturing diversity, then, affirmative action makes much more sense, as few will openly criticize the benefits of a diverse Yale. “Identity, culture, faith and politics inspire a constellation of vibrant communities,” Yale’s admissions website proclaims. Yet the natural pushback against affirmative action has always been that race-conscious standards have blocked the most qualified candidates from gaining admission to Yale in order to make room for under-qualified, underrepresented minorities.

But such thinking relies on a troubling assumption: that Yale should measure all applicants on the same one-dimensional scale of merit — when in fact our measure of merit often skews toward a certain demographic. In the public eye, we set up hoops in the exact shape of upper-class straight white men and then applaud them when they are able to jump through them. Affirmative action allows the Yale Admissions Office additional flexibilities to recognize the nuances of unique challenges — a hedge against the urge to judge applicants on the basis of test scores and number of LinkedIn connections alone.

No doubt, Yale still has work to do to make its student body more representative of the country as a whole. Barring internationals, the proportion of African-American enrolment, 6 percent, lags behind the national population of 13 percent; Hispanics are similarly underrepresented, 9 percent against a national 16 percent; and Yale still draws 44 percent of its student body from those select few wealthy enough to afford a Yale education without any financial help.

Yet despite these shortcomings, we have consistently progressed toward a more inclusive, diverse Yale. A Supreme Court ruling undermining affirmative action would only reverse that trend.

Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at tyler.blackmon@yale.edu.

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