In an interview with The New Yorker, William Bowen—Princeton’s president circa Sonia Sotomayor’s freshman year there—articulates the argument for considering race in college admissions:
The way many Americans learn about civil rights—the way I learned about Rosa Parks in second grade—very much focuses on color blindness. The idea of racial justice often coexists uneasily with that basic narrative. In a recent Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative-action programs for some school districts, John Roberts reflected the opinion of many conservatives when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What’s your response to that?
One of the good outcomes of the O’Connor decision [in the Michigan v. Long affirmative action case] was the rejection of quotas and just giving points because you were black or whatever. The University of Michigan was told that, at the undergraduate level, you can’t do that. That’s wrong. I agree! That is wrong because it fails to capture what the whole portfolio of the person looks like.
In short, your racial and ethnic background can shape who a student is and will become during and after college; paying no mind to it—or simply giving out a point for being Latino—ultimately patronizes that ethnic experience, whether white, black, Latino or Asian.
That idea gets lost, or overlooked, when people talk about color blindness—thinking of Rosa Parks as just another person. Color blindness, then, seems to overtake the affirmative action debate for many: Any mind paid to race is an anathema to racial justice. Scores of minority students at the nation’s most selective colleges know exactly how that manifests itself—the complete shedding of racial blindness by some white students who see a minority student’s race as their overriding factor for admission.
Just after I arrived for my freshman year at my alma mater, Northwestern, a Latina friend of mine overheard her white roommate on the phone lamenting to a friend that her roommate and her friends—about five of us—only “got in because they’re Latino.” The girl I had been dating the summer before school put it just as bluntly when I told her the school had given me a good chunk of financial aid: “That’s because you’re Mexican.”
I remember making a point not to mention my racial background on my application, but the comments were belittling and condescending nonetheless. What makes them even more hurtful is that they are delivered wrapped in a thin film of ignorance about what affirmative action means: Considering a person’s racial makeup to better understand who she is and could become, and how her experiences could contribute to a more dynamic student body. That group will always, and must, include white students.
But the argument against it, made most recently by talkers like Pat Buchanan in the debate over Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, pushes aside that definition of affirmative action. I did not indicate my own race on my college applications because I was all too aware of the idea that affirmative action means I would receive a point for my race. That’s how so many Americans see it. It then becomes so easy to exploit when a president nominates someone with Sonia Sotomayor’s racial background to the Supreme Court: She must have gotten to where she is because of her race.
Such words only show intellectual laze, because they are such an easy weapon to wield in a debate where. They create a convenient weapon, too, because it allows people to almost completely dismiss a person strictly on the basis her race and without paying mind to her body of work. That is the inherent hypocrisy in such arguments: After calling for color-blindness and focus on merits, those dismissing minorities like Sotomayor as “affirmative action” nominees eschew the former and overlook the latter.