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 firstname.lastname@example.org.