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.

  • undergrad_14

    After reading this column, I still fail to see what Schuette — a case that concerns a voter referendum that only affects public universities — has to do with Yale’s particular affirmative action policies. Is there any particular reason the case was mentioned, other than context and the fact that it was argued last week?

    Also, I’ll give good odds to anyone betting on the Sixth Circuit getting affirmed. But that’s another matter entirely.

    • ironbulldog

      Actually, Schuette should and does matter to Yale. It SHOULD matter because Schuette is about the role of race in college admissions policies. Given its place at the top of the higher education food chain, Yale should care about what views the Court is expressing on this issue. More importantly, Schuette DOES matter because what the Court decides legally binds Yale, even though Yale is a private university. Why? Yale (like practically every other private university) accepts federal funding and is therefore bound by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Court’s precedents.

      So I think we should be very careful not to dismiss Schuette as irrelevant–it is VERY relevant.

      Nice piece, Tyler!

      • undergrad_14

        What the Court decides legally binds Yale, of course. However, it’s hard to see how any decision based on this particular set of facts would affect Yale. After all, I don’t see Connecticut voters (or their legislators) lining up to ban affirmative action anytime soon.

        Fisher was the one to be worried about, and that boat has sailed (at least temporarily, anyway).

  • lakia

    “No doubt, Yale still has work to do to make its student body more representative of the country as a whole.”

    If Yale endeavors to be “representative” of the country as a whole, #yaleisscrewed.

    • blahh

      #hashtag

  • theantiyale

    “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.”

    It is laughable now, but around 1985 (before “diversity” appeared on the
    college admisssions goal list) I applied and was rejected for one of those
    entry level Admissions officer jobs at Yale.

    Even though my friend on the Yale Corp. Board , Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, had arranged the interview, I was still rejected.

    I must have been one outstanding corn-pone Divinity grad. http://gaybirthyale.blogspot.com/

    The interview had included reading actual application essays and writing short blurbs commenting on them. My primitive Mt. Carmel scrawls must have seemed a bit beneath the Lawn Club set.

    I knew ZILCH about what Old Blue blood looked like when it was inked on application forms.. “Legacy” was an unknown concept to this naive egalitarian.

    Rejected but not dispirited, I went on to be much happier in unpretentious, class-less Vermont where there are only two sacred topics of conversation: Freedom of Speech (which welcomes everything) and Four-wheel-drive.

    Mr. Salovey’s inaugural call to Yale students to discuss their diverse backgrounds
    is a dramatic act of New Blue iconoclasm.

    Perhaps it would have made Clarence Thomas feel more at home at the Law School had it been invoked decades ago, and thereby changed the projected fate of “Affirmative Action” at the hands of the Supremes. At the least it might have knocked the Old Blue chip off Thomas’s shoulder.

    Maybe Yale should reserve one Admisssion Counselor seat in memory of Bishop
    Moore’s abortive attempt to pump Blue Blood into my hayseed veins, and call it
    “The Country Bumpkin Counselor.”

    That would be real affirmative action.

    PK

  • highstreet2010

    And here I thought we were setting up hoops in the shape of middle-class Asians, who are dramatically over-represented as a percentage of population (16% at Yale, 5% in America). I guess they’re just whiter than whites.

    Whites (and ‘others’) are only 59% of the Yale population, while they make up 72% of the national population. Yet you seem to be saying that we need less whites at Yale, why is that?

    I think you have a bit of cognitive dissonance when you say that policies which restrict Jewish entrance to Yale to ‘only’ 10% were bad (Jews make up ~2% of the population), but support policies that strive to make Yale ‘representative of the country as a whole’. Clearly trying to make Yale ‘representative’ will mean quotas (or higher standards etc.) on high-performing minorities such as Jews or Asians while practicing affirmative action on lower-performing minorities; it’s two sides of the same coin. So why do you say one is good and the other bad?