Editor’s note: This letter was written in response to a Crimson column, “Affirmative Dissatisfaction,” that was published on November 2nd.
I don’t think you are a bad person. I don’t want to attack you. I believe, unlike many Crimson commenters, that you are qualified to attend this school. I have no reason to attack your intelligence, your presence here at Harvard, or your existence as a human being at all.
That said, your column in the Crimson two weeks ago made me angry. Not just angry for myself, a woman of color who has benefitted from multiple types of affirmative action, but for the communities I am perceived to be a part of, and for the communities that you believe have unfairly taken sitting room at our university.
You flippantly argue that “adorable gingers” aren’t considered a minority, in order to invalidate all minority groupings. Although, of course, there has been no systematic discrimination against gingers as a group throughout this nation’s history, entrenched within governmental institutions and corporations alike. When there is evidence that gingers are routinely passed over during job interviews or that they are ensconced in a cycle of poverty, let me know, please.
Did you research for this article? I’m sure you did, but you must have missed that women are traditionally included within affirmative action policies. While Harvard itself has no gender-based affirmative action, perhaps the campaign should be to include it, not to eliminate race-based affirmative action.
If this is about resources, you argue, why don’t we use class-based affirmative action? There are rich minorities! They have access to resources! Yes, they do. However, to act as if race doesn’t uniquely affect one’s pathway in life is simply untrue. Your view is not uncommon—whites commonly believe that it is lack of will rather than discrimination that keeps blacks from succeeding, while blacks report the opposite. Studies show again and again that blacks with exactly the same resumes as whites are often passed over in favor of their white counterparts. Blacks and whites are still gently pushed towards residential segregation, and these largely black neighborhoods become stuck in a cycle of poverty with poorer schools, fewer work options, and a smaller budget for local government.
Harvard doesn’t admit applicants with low academic qualifications. Please understand that. Their average standardized test scores (however flawed these are), average GPAs, and other quantitative measures are the highest in the nation. Black students and other students of color aren’t dragging these averages back, and they aren’t simply let in because of their race. Race is simply a factor to be considered as a potential marker of diversity and struggle against adversity. Students of color, upon attending this university, are required to take the same classes, pass the same exams, comp the same activities. The visually impaired are not capable of becoming pilots, but surely students of color are capable of taking tests.
I’m sorry that you have had the terrible disadvantage of psychological trauma regarding your privileged status at this university. Your affirmative action has little to do with structural inequality or diversity, but with cycles of money and legacy. I’m glad that your father donates money to this university; that is part of the reason I can afford to attend Harvard. I’m happy that you boosted Harvard’s yield rate, as that is part of the reason they admitted you. I’m also glad that they admitted me, both as a qualified applicant, and to increase diversity on campus. I know that both of our affirmative actions are tactics. I understand that as a university, such tactics are practiced to improve both the image and the quality of the university. What you don’t seem to understand, Sarah, is that this university has made a decision to create an environment of diverse vibrancy, where athletes and legacies and students of color all have a place. Academics are not the only reason students are admitted to Harvard—talent, potential for success, penchant for social change, these are all traits that a Harvard student might have. If Harvard admitted only students with SAT scores above a 2350, I guarantee that Harvard would not be an institution worth attending.
I, personally, don’t care that there are Democrats who don’t support affirmative action. There are also plenty of anti-choice, anti-marriage equality, and anti-welfare Democrats. They don’t have my vote. However, to quote Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts in the same paragraph as talking about partisan issues is laughable. “The only way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race,” he says. Affirmative action is not discrimination, but an understanding of the role race plays in our society. This is not a post-racial America, and refusing to think critically about race doesn’t erase discrimination, it embeds it.
Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits race-based discrimination. What it doesn’t prohibit is affirmative action, which in the modern day promotes the holistic review of an application, taking race into account as one of the many factors contributing to a person’s unique situation in life. It affirms that their race has genuinely affected their perception of society, and society’s perception of them.
While you affirm that racism exists, you believe that affirmative action will affect how employers review the applications of those who have benefitted from it. However, I disagree with you: employers are not impressed that someone got into Harvard University, because all that reflects were your accomplishments in high school. Employers are impressed by the success that one has at an institution like Harvard, because that is what matters. My accomplishments at Harvard are what will go on my resume when I apply for jobs in two years, and it is my Harvard degree, not my Harvard acceptance, that will stand out.
I am succeeding at this university. I am surrounded by students of color who are thriving in spite of the barriers they were born with, and who are grateful for the opportunities they are given. We know that we are the lucky ones; we know that we are part of a select few that got an opportunity that many of our brothers and sisters of color will never have. I am aware of my privileges as a Harvard student.
Remember that you are lucky as well. You were lucky to be born in a family who cared about your education, and you are privileged to attend this university. Only 1700 make it out of more than 30,000 applications, and no one makes it here on merit alone. Affirmative action serves its purpose, to create a campus where you can interact with students from many different backgrounds, colors, and creeds, and the majority of people in the United States don’t enjoy that privilege.
Affirmative action has benefitted your life, Sarah. I hope that you will take the opportunity to revel in the privileges it has granted you here at Harvard.