Admissions Angst Over Race Checkboxes Highlights Underlying Problems

Ashley Thorne

The last time my extended family was together, my grandmother mentioned, as she has before, that we have a Cherokee ancestor. My dad asked her if she could get documentation of this lineage for my brother, a senior in high school, to use on his college applications. But would evidence of one Cherokee ancestor really make my brother a “diverse” applicant?

I just read the New York Times front page article, “On College Forms, a Question of Race, or Races, Can Perplex,” at Roger Clegg’s referral on Phi Beta Cons. The article illuminates the awkward hypocrisy of using college applicants’ professed race(s) to help “tip the balance” toward admission.

One rising college freshman, whose father is African-American and whose mother is Asian, checked only the “African-American” box on her applications, because she felt her Asian-ness could hurt her chances. She understood colleges’ racial hierarchies and played her cards to her best advantage.

Admissions officials can’t verify whether students actually are the races they claim to be, but they try to sort out imposters looking to get in on the diversity benefits. Roger Clegg says pointing a finger at these students misdirects the blame: “I think our condemnation then and now should be more concentrated on the racially discriminatory system itself rather than on those who tried or try to game it.”

I agree, and I have two things to add to his observations on the Times article.

First, we need to rectify the skewed understanding of what ‘egalitarian’ means:

“How do we include multiracials in our view of an egalitarian society and not do it in a way that disadvantages other groups?” said Ulli K. Ryder, visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.

Here’s a definition from

–adjective: asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life.

If we take a truly egalitarian view of society—believing that all people are equal—we won’t need to worry about including “multiracials” or disadvantaging “other groups,” because we will treat all groups equally.”

Second, universities must recall their first purposes: pursuing the truth, transmitting civilizational heritage, shaping students’ minds and character, and preparing them for vocations. To paraphrase Stanley Fish, it’s not their job to save the world.

One administrator quoted in the Times article, Rice’s coordinator of minority recruitment, recognizes this (at least verbally): “’At some point I have to say we can’t fix society’s ills,’” she said. “’That’s not our job as an institution.’”

That’s right. And we have to say this not just “at some point,” but from the beginning.

Our current system, with admissions officers laboring in angst over little checkboxes, is making a mockery of “diversity,” teaching students the wrong lessons about human equality, and overstepping the bounds of the university’s mission. The best path to achieving a society in which all people are treated with equal dignity and an academic system that exists above all else to give students an excellent education, is to do without race/ethnicity considerations.

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