The recent US Supreme Court decision about affirmative action as applied to college admissions has lead to a lot of discussion in our nation’s editorial pages (and, presumably, among our citizens as well). I didn’t follow the Michigan case closely enough to have a strongly supported position on that specific case, but I do want to touch on an area that some people seem to be neglecting. A lot of the discussion about affirmative action deals with counteracting racism and/or redressing past grievances, but these tend to take a “lesser of two evils” approach. The goal, everyone seems to agree, is to reach a state where race need not be a factor because all are treated equally.
That’s a fine goal, and I am a strong believer in judging people by merit. More specifically, I believe people should be judged by relevant factors: if I want to hire a secretary, then typing skill and intelligence are important, but sex and race are not; if I am casting the role of Othello, however, I want someone who can act but also someone who is male and at least looks black. (Granted, a production of Othello with a white female lead is imaginable, and has probably been done, but in that case we’re choosing to make a statement in our casting, as the role clearly calls for a black man. Thus, race-conscious decisions are not necessarily bad; it’s just that they’re often used when they aren’t relevant.
The question then becomes: is a student’s race relevant when making admissions decisions? For an individual student, I would say no. In the aggregate, however, I would argue that there is value in having a diverse student body. Thus, some statistical adjustments to encourage diversity may be justified, provided they strike an acceptable balance between the needs of the individual student and the needs of the student body.
But I’ve skipped over why I think diversity is important. Let me make some analogies. First, students of computer science and ecology are familiar with the dangers of monocultures, such as a network or field where all the inhabitants are of the same type. Any threat which can wipe out one individual can wipe them all out. Thus, a “multiculture” (“polyculture”? What’s the antonym of “monoculture”?) is more robust.
Second, students who learn second and third languages often note that it helps them understand their first language better. The learning process forces them to think about grammar and syntax, which are often invisible to native speakers. (For example, you can see the error in “I gave he the ball” right away and you probably know how it’s supposed to go, but do you know why?)
Students on a diverse campus will be exposed to alternate world-views and life experiences. As a result, they may re-examine or reinforce their own views. People who are exposed to other groups in non-threatening circumstances usually learn that the people in that group are individuals just like them, and learn to be more careful in applying stereotypes. A diverse campus doesn’t guarantee that this will happen, but it provides more opportunity than a non-diverse campus.
The question is not “should universities consider race in admissions”, but “is race (or culture or economic status) relevant to admissions”. I would argue that it is relevant when applied in service of creating a diverse campus, which I feel is valuable in itself. Now, one can argue that race itself is a vague concept with no biological basis, but that is because it is a social construct and therefore just as real in social contexts as eye color or height, even if reasonable people may disagree over categories. As long as we divide ourselves into races, we will create different experiences between the people of those races, but the more we are exposed to them, the more we will realise that all people are basically the same. Thus, a diversity helps us see that we’re not so diverse after all.