My doubts are only deepened by the debate entry contributed by Rod M. Bugarin Jr., who "formerly served on admissions and financial aid committees at Hampshire College, Wesleyan University, Brown University and Columbia University." He writes that "because I was one of the few Ivy League admissions officers of Asian descent, I was usually challenged, publicly and privately, about how affirmative action admissions practices were unfair to qualified applicants."
Here's his answer:
Yes, if you considered only test scores, Asian and Asian-American students would seem to be at a disadvantage. But the students who rise to the top of the highly personal and
subjective admissions process are those who have submitted the strongest comprehensive applications. From my experience of watching college students learn, grow and
develop on elite campuses, I rarely found the skills that are validated
by standardized tests to be those that enhance classroom discussions or
the interpersonal dynamic when doing research with peers and professors.
It wouldn't bother me if an admissions officer said, "Applicant A had better grades and test scores, but that isn't everything -- Applicant B has showed a propensity for volunteerism, excels interpersonally, and is presently the captain of her sports team, so she gets the last spot." But I can't help but feel uneasy about the passage above. Its clear implication is that while Asian-American students are good at tests, their "interpersonal dynamic" and conversation skills are inferior. In other words, on the most subjective criteria in the admissions process, they just happen to conform to the negative racial stereotypes with which they're associated.
He goes on:
Policies like affirmative action give admissions officers the liberty
to identify those candidates who surpass expectations of what is
"qualified," bringing talents, interests, skills and perspectives that
make learning in the college community an enriching experience for
Again, the implication here seems to be that while Asian-American applicants as a group excel at tests, an important factor in admissions, their talents, skills, and other interests tend to be significantly inferior to students of other races, and having them around isn't as enriching for other students. Given what you know about the vagaries of college admissions, do you think that's a rigorously reached conclusion, however uncomfortable, or an echo of the prejudicial stereotypes of Asian Americans that are pervasive in society? If the former, you have more faith in the Ivy League than me.
"Without practices like affirmative action," Bugarin continues, "admissions officers are
constrained to select only those who demonstrate a very narrow set of
skills, which is not necessarily what our nation and economy need." Again, is there any reason to think that Asian Americans are more "narrow" in their skills than folks from other groups? And even if it were so, wouldn't it emerge from an admissions regime that took all sorts of things into consideration, but explicitly did not factor an applicant's race into the process?
Race-blind admissions hardly needs to be "narrow" in what it considers.
Affirmative action is a crude tool. So was civil war, which is to say that crude tools have been necessary, in America's past, to advance the cause of racial equality. This is a more nuanced moment.
As I see it, we know that even well-intentioned people regularly rationalize discriminatory behavior, that society as a whole is often horrified at its own bygone race-based policies, and that race is so fluid in our multi-ethnic society that no one can adequately conceive of all the ways it is changing; knowing these things, prudence dictates acceptance of the fact that humans aren't equipped to fairly take race into consideration. At various times in history, doing so has nevertheless been a necessity. We're lucky that it isn't a necessity now, and that class-based affirmative action would effectively target the most needy racial minorities in a race-blind way.
To imagine that today's college-admissions officers can step outside the failings of humanity, making subjective judgment calls in secret with racial enlightenment that is unprecedented in human history, is folly. It may have seemed possible and even done more good than harm when America was mostly grappling with black and white. Now that we're asking people to calibrate the "diversity value" of American blacks, Africans, Hispanics, Thais, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, and many more besides? The prudent course is acknowledging the limits of our wisdom. Alas, intellectual humility and restraint are not among the Ivy League's virtues.