Multiracial students and the evolution of affirmative action

Jay Willis

Reduced to its elements, affirmative action is a relatively straightforward concept.  Colleges and universities consider an applicant’s racial and ethnic background to ensure that they enroll sufficient numbers of students from traditionally underrepresented groups. But schools are now grappling with new Department of Education regulations that, for the first time, allow students to identify themselves as members of two (or more) ethnic groups on their college and graduate school applications.  The initiative was intended to recognize the diversity of the national student body and to ensure that no student had to pigeonhole him or herself into one neatly checked box.  But the multitude of boxes suddenly available to each applicant introduces an unwelcome element of uncertainty for campus officials composing the incoming class of 2015.

Say a mixed-race student self-identifies as both African-American and white on his college application; the former group traditionally receives preferential treatment in affirmative action programs, while the latter does not.  Under the new reporting guidelines, how should the student be counted in terms of his contribution to the school’s diversity?  Is he African-American, and if so, does he somehow count less when calculating these statistics than does someone with two African-American parents?  Is he white, and if so, is he less white such that he counts less toward the school’s burgeoning white population?  Is there some formula by which the school could count him as both?  Or is he a member of neither category such that he and other multiracial students must be reclassified altogether?

Difficult, uncomfortable, even repulsive questions.  The concept of institutionally assigning a relative value to one’s race evokes painful memories of other infamous fractions and is antiethical to the reasons we value diversity in the first place.  But the reality is that calculating statistics — however it is to be done — is unavoidable for schools under constant pressure to boost and maintain their minority enrollment.

Statistically, underrepresented minorities who are also biracial are not the same as those who are not; as the Times’ coverage points out, students with one black parent and one white parent are, on average, more affluent than students with two black parents.  But affirmative action as it stands today is about race, not socioeconomic class.  And the fact is that Americans still perceive multiracial individuals to be members of the minority group.  We do not live in a society in which students with one black parent experience half the discrimination of those students with two.

Yes, the ability to check any box with little fear of challenge will lead to occasional attempts to game the system. But trusting experienced admissions officers to weed out bad-faith claimants is preferable to defining diversity in a way that implies that multiracial students contribute less to it than do their underrepresented counterparts that check only one box.  For now, therefore, schools should continue to count multiracial applicants as members of their underrepresented minority group to ensure that our evolving understanding of affirmative action’s role in society does not further divide the very students it seeks to bring together.


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