Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony during commencement exercises.
Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

On Harvard, the Supreme Court and affirmative action

Like so many of our national discourses on race, and the policies that address racial inequities, affirmative action has come under direct attack in the Obama era. We know that affirmative action works. It helps to tilt a racial “playing field” that continues to be imbalanced and unjust across a number of social institutions. But the symbolic victories of affirmative action too often serve as simulacra for actual racial equality.

“The fashion in which the society has become open for some people of color, like a bottleneck, means that, while some have access, most don’t.”
Imani Perry, "More Beautiful and More Terrible,"
As a historically elite academic institution, access to Harvard University (for a few gifted black folk) has often served as a false positive for racial equality. In the fall of 2013 I was invited to speak at former Senator Mo Cowan’s course on politics at the Kennedy School for a session on diverse candidates’ campaigns for public office. Prior to the class session, Mr. Cowan asked me to sit with several black undergraduate student leaders at Harvard. I am grateful to him for doing so. Our exchange was engaging, interesting and depressing. 

The unrest expressed by those student leaders – their disenchantment with Harvard, their frustration with arbitrary, racialized stigmatization, the administrative silence about it all – and their burgeoning response to all of this, eventually became the #ItooAmHarvard campaign. I could not have known then that this would be the year that Harvard would set its own admissions record for black students. These two phenomenon, I believe are directly related to each other and, in turn, they are both also related to the recent decision made by the High Court to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action. 

The frustration of black students at Harvard, the record number of black admits and the judicial unraveling of race-based decisions in college admissions all speak to broader issues related to race in the 21st century, Obama Era, and the blind spots that too often accompany American progress in closing the racial divide. Those students at Harvard were not, in effect, expressing anything that isn’t fairly common in the experiences of students of color on predominantly white campuses. 

“At best, these small victories are symbolic – at worst, they function as a mirage for real racial equality.”
Being a black undergraduate student at an elite (predominantly white) institution, is like being trapped in a black and white television with only two channels: 1) The stereotype threat channel, where students of color are constantly wary of confirming some negative stereotype; and 2) the threatening stereotype channel, where students of color constantly wrestle with the majority culture’s perception of them as angry or threatening.

I wish I could say that I was shocked by what I heard, but given what was going on at my own campus – we too had an #ItooAMLehigh campaign this year – and what I have experienced for most of my academic and adult life, racial discrimination and racial discomfort on college campuses is as normalized as ignorant and culturally insensitive mascots in college and professional sports. What was different (both at Harvard and at my own institution) was the steely resolve of the students. 

Those student leaders with whom I spoke in the fall of 2013 will help prepare Harvard’s largest incoming class of black students in the fall of 2014 – some 165-170 students. They have their work cut out for them. In the current socio-political environment, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, the stereotypical double-bind of being black at a predominantly white institution will be more pronounced than ever. Students will feel the stigma of race more than the sense of access that admission to an elite institution provides; they will often be put on the defensive about being at Harvard rather than challenged to do their best academic work. Given the pall of suspicion that affirmative action policies project onto students of color – and those of us in the professional world – we should wonder that the policy still has any proponents left to defend it.

Yet it does. And this is largely because we know that careful consideration of race – the history of racism as well as the persistence of institutionalized racial discrimination – can inform admissions and hiring decisions in ways that reflect the demographics of our society as well as the spirit of equality and equal access that is allegedly so fundamental to our American ethos. Affirmative action works. The visible success of it, especially in this current moment – black president, black attorney general – sometimes works against our capacity to continue the necessary struggle.

This is how Harvard’s largest incoming class of black students is connected to the Supreme Court’s decision to promote the dismantling of race-based affirmative action. Their success and publicly proclaimed access signal accomplishments that as a society we have yet to achieve. In “More Beautiful and More Terrible,” the most formative research and writing done on this subject, Princeton Professor Imani Perry argues that “[t]he fashion in which the society has become open for some people of color, like a bottleneck, means that, while some have access, most don’t.” 

The opponents of affirmative action interpret the access won by an arbitrarily determined, exceptional few somehow represents victory over centuries of racism and the tangible residue of racist ideologies instilled in America’s most revered institutions. At best, these small victories are symbolic – at worst, they function as a mirage for real racial equality. And sadly, in the hands of some, they become the subtext for reversing the outcomes of the long-fought war against racial injustice in America.

Affirmative Action

On Harvard, the Supreme Court and affirmative action