Are Harvard undergrads beyond race?

I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a story in the Harvard undergraduate newspaper on “raceless” or “postracial” identities among Harvard undergrads.  The story suggests that some (many?) individuals do not identify with any racial category–instead, they reject racial categories altogether. This includes racial minorities–it references a racial transcendence movement, which I hadn’t heard of before.  There are three issues at play here. First, is the question of what kinds of identities folks assert.  Second is the identities that others ascribe to us.  Third, our social position in society is very much shaped by race, beyond others’ racial ascription.  Historical policies such as red-lining and drug-sentencing laws have led to group differences by race and ethnicity that are obvious in American society today–they have influenced the disproportionate number of African Americans living in poverty, for example, and the preponderance of young black men in the criminal justice system. These processes of racial formation go beyond what individuals assert about themselves or ascribe to others.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that individuals should be able to choose the racial or ethnic identities with which they self-identify–or to choose not to identify altogether.  But, what is really the point of promoting “racial transcendence” or “racelessness”?  The underlying assumption seems to be that by showing the fragility and socially constructed nature of racial categories, we can start to dismantle racial inequality.  This is where I fundamentally disagree.

Ignoring racial categories will not alone reverse the historical policies that have led us to where we are.  Nor will it reduce the social meaning of race in a society in which race affects everything from how cool you are seen by peers in high school to which neighborhoods you will be shown housing in.  Ultimately, I am less concerned with how individuals choose to identify racially or ethnically and more with how racial ascription and racialized systems in the United States continue to affect our lives.  And, if i think about this in the context of K-12 education, I do think it’s important to develop strong, critical race consciousness among minority youth in order for them to make sense of a world in which the class and racial inequality around them is inescapable.  How can they maintain hope and optimism about their futures in spite of structural barriers?  A sense of agency to effect change in society along with what Jeff Duncan-Andrade calls “critical hope” are a first step.  I can’t see how racial transcendence will help minority kids make sense of a highly racialized US society.

From what I keep hearing, however, kids in school in the United States are implicitly being taught that identifying race is bad.  They flippantly say “that’s racist” to any mention of racial identities or differences.  One important step for the US to confront its inequality in education is to develop a vocabulary with which to talk about race, race differences, race identities, and racial history across racial and ethnic lines.

What Merit Means

Next week I am presenting a paper on how students at elite British and American universities make meaning of the admissions office, given the great deal of press in both countries about how few students from disadvantaged backgrounds make it to elite universities.  In Britain, every year the Guardian seems to have an article on the underrepresentation of students from state schools, and more recently there has been discussion over the lack of British Afro-Caribbean admits to Oxford in particular.  In the US, while we know that while financial aid at elite universities is dramatically increasing for students from the poorest families, most undergraduates’ families at those institutions are still able to pay more than the median household income in the United States. At Harvard, for example, 75% of undergraduates come from families with household incomes over $80,000/year.

So what do students say?  I had assumed that, given that college students tend to be on the liberal side, they would be critical of inequality that leads to a skewed campus make-up, whether it be by class or race.  However, I was surprised to see most students agreeing with the rhetoric of their respective admissions offices.  British students believed that academic meritocracy is alive and well in the admissions decisions to their university, and they strongly opposed any form of affirmative action or “positive discrimination” as it’s called in Britain, on the grounds that it would violate the principal of merit.  They viewed any underrepresentation as a reflection of inequality within the primary and secondary state school system in Britain, which was not the responsibility of their university.  Rather, the university’s purpose is otherwise.  According to one student, “Oxford has a very clear stated aim, and that is to maintain its position in an intellectual society.

On the other hand American students viewed merit much more flexibly, as do admissions offices at elite institutions.  They defended athletic recruiting and affirmative action in the interest of crafting a diverse cohort from which everyone would gain more.  Many even defended legacy admits (students who gain a leg up in admissions because their parents attended that university) on the grounds that it was a pragmatic policy—it brought important resources to the university, which justified the practice.

In a way the parallels between student perspectives and those of their admissions officers makes sense—students who win the highly competitive admissions contest have an interest in demonstrating that the process is fair and just.  Otherwise, it might call into question their own success in a contest that so few actually win.  But, their perspectives lead to some problems.

In Britain, students had little to say about how the university might expand access to elite institutions, blaming instead the K-12 education system.  In the US, students end up treating race as one “thing”, like a talent in music composition, that can get someone into a selective institution; this can lead to racial resentment over seemingly undeserved advantages held by black and Latino students.  This of course misses the underlying inequality, discrimination, and underrepresentation that make race-based affirmative action so important in the United States.  The diversity argument only goes so far.