Harvard — November 13, 2012 8:52 pm

Harvard Undergrads Try and Fail to Discuss Affirmative Action


It’s official: Harvard undergrads are incapable of having a rational discussion about race.

The last two weeks were thoroughly depressing for any student who hoped that Harvard would be a place where people of different opinions could engage each other in a civil search for the truth.

During this time, three articles were published in the Harvard Crimson about race-based affirmative action. The first, by Jane Doe*, argued against it. The second and third responded to Doe, arguing for it. All three articles, however, failed to do the matter justice.

Neglecting the Counter-Arguments

In a case study in talking past instead of to each other, all three articles neglected to even address the major arguments against them. From Doe, there was no mention of the possible value of diversity in the classroom, our possible need to compensate for structural racism today or in the past, or the stabilizing effects that a diverse elite could have on American society.

Similarly, we didn’t hear anything from the other authors about the injustice done to white and Asian applicants disadvantaged in the admissions process simply because of the color of their skin, the racial division and resentment that follows, or why class-based affirmative action wouldn’t be an appropriate substitute for race-based affirmative action.

On an extremely controversial issue, these articles failed to move the conversation forward. They were written more to reaffirm the beliefs of those who already supported the author’s stance than to persuade students on the other side.

Hateful Backlash

But while the quality of the articles themselves was disappointing, what was truly unsettling was the reaction to Doe’s. Harvard is a liberal campus, and it wasn’t surprising that coming out against affirmative action would earn her some stiff pushback. What was surprising, however, was the massive backlash of hateful personal attacks she received.

I Saw You Harvard, as good a barometer of the mood of the campus as any, was vicious. Posters derided Doe as “that jew” and “a dumb illiterate piece of [sh*t].” Jezebel, ostensibly written by adults, called the student a “snide, rude little baby” and “one of the most dangerous types of rich white people.” Dozens of students shared or liked links to the Jezebel article on Facebook.

When Doe objected to people assuming she was wealthy because of her legacy status in the comments of one of the links, a Harvard alum mocked her: “Wait, are you not wealthy [Jane]? Cause those profile pictures look hella expensive…” The top comment on the second article cheered, “Way to go…! Stick it to that nasty, err, vehement, white bitch.” The comment has 34 likes and has not been taken down by the Crimson.

Carelessness and Misunderstanding

Much of the anger was provoked by Doe’s argument that affirmative action means Harvard lowers its academic standards for minority applicants. I won’t get into the weeds of this dust-up, but it seems that this is a question on which admissions data must be the backbone of any argument. It has not been, on either side.

Another lightning rod was Doe’s unwise question, “How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school?”

We have here carelessness and misunderstanding. Doe should have been much more careful and avoided generalizing about the competence of all affirmative action beneficiaries, since many of them are excellent at what they do and would have succeeded even without affirmative action. But nothing Doe said indicated that she feels that minorities don’t belong at Harvard, as her critics have charged.

Doe pointed out that giving an applicant an admissions boost based on non-academic criteria will produce doubt about the academic qualifications of that applicant, if accepted, relative to those who didn’t receive such a boost. Due to Doe’s failure to better highlight the many different types of applicants who receive such boosts besides minorities, many people understandably interpreted her to be unfairly singling out minority students for scrutiny.

Given that her article is full of arguments that appear never to have reached maturity, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume this was instead an oversight. If it was, then Doe has taken a legitimate position. Affirmative action has both benefits and costs. Those costs include doubt being cast on the credentials of all underrepresented minority students and professionals; both Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama routinely endure this indignity publicly. Affirmative action’s proponents should not be attacking anyone who acknowledges those costs as a racist. They should be explaining why the benefits are worth the costs. Reasoning persuades. Name-calling doesn’t.

The Way Forward

I’ve witnessed smaller-scale versions of this ordeal play out many times in dorm rooms and dining halls at Harvard. One student is discussing a social issue frankly and before long another student accuses him or her of being a racist or a bigot. Discussion is shut down, there are a lot of hurt feelings on both sides, and no one is any better off.

This is what has surprised me most about Harvard. When I chose to go here, I never thought the students would be so intolerant of opinions different than their own, so judgmental, and so quick to call anyone who disagrees with them names. Before Harvard, I’d never met people who unashamedly admit they won’t be friends with people who disagree with them on politics.

On all issues, but especially race, this climate is poisonous. Several white students I know say they are unwilling to discuss race on campus, for fear that they will be rewarded for their honesty with a Doe-like wave of character defamation. After this, who can blame them?

We can do better than this. We come to Harvard, in large part, because we can learn so much from each other. But that doesn’t happen when we’re afraid to speak our minds.

So let’s talk to each other. Let’s be honest but respectful, while realizing that honesty will result in some unintentionally offensive remarks. Let’s respond to these awkward moments, not by disengaging and calling each other names, but by making a good-faith effort to educate with reason and hard evidence.

Let’s be more like junior Monique Hassel, who offered to get coffee with Doe with these words: “I just want you to understand why your words might be offensive.”

That’s how progress happens. Not by what happened these last two weeks. We can do better than this.


*The author’s name has been changed to protect her from being further connected with the hateful response to her article. 

  • Harvard11

    Agreed. Great article

  • Guest ’14

    Jane Doe = Sarah Siskind, Harvard ’14.

  • Steve

    What the heck? Did you not get anything out of this article at all? Grow up.

  • ’14

    While I am grateful that someone has composed a well-written plea for rational discussion, I feel that this opinion (like those before it) still misses the point.

    Affirmative action is NOT “giving an applicant an admissions boost.” It is not a free lift for being of a certain race; it is a fair, reasoned evaluation of ALL of the information, not just the resume. Race-based AA (as well as class-based, etc.) means simply taking into account one’s circumstances when evaluating his/her accomplishments.

    How can people reasonably believe that blindly comparing resumes is a good admissions policy? Those of the privileged race and class have more opportunities open to them and thus an easier path to an impressive resume. A naive best-resume contest just gives the upper hand to the privileged.

    Now, I have many criticisms for the way that some policies are currently implemented, but I really hope we can stop debating why affirmative action is necessary and instead discuss how to improve it (also including class-based, for instance).

  • Faz16

    I find the attempt to shield “Jane Doe” from criticism of her publicly expressed opinions really, really lame. You can criticize the people who are attacking her, fine. But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

  • uh…

    Seriously? Her article is LINKED here. People who want to say immature or hateful things to her can find her name IN THE BYLINE. The “Jane Doe” thing is pretty silly, honestly.

  • Wyatt Troia

    I realize that it’s easy to find out her name once you find this article. It wasn’t done to prevent any reader from knowing who she is. I left out her name to prevent this article and the slurs against her I included from turning up on search results when people Google her in the future. I don’t think she should have to have things like that associated with her forever, but I do think it’s important for us to see exactly what students were saying about her.

  • Still Doesn’t Get It

    Thank you for the attempted neutrality. But the issue is Wyatt, that as a white man (presumably of heterosexual orientation) you cannot fully understand why AA has a value for minorities (including women, religious minorities, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors).

    You are correct in assuming that people are talking through each other, but those defending AA are doing so in the most correct manner possible. While some people have taken to attacking Ms. Siskand, published responses have been trying to clarify why her language was offensive and why her view of AA is incorrect.

    While there has not been a strong dialogue on this topic, it really does not need one. Those who argue agains AA are arguing against equality of opportunity for all minority groups (something that shouldn’t be challenged because it has already been fought for and a consensus reached).

    Ultimately, Sarah’s article offended others without her realizing that she was not just attacking an idea but rather real people (not to mention the fact that her understanding of AA as race-based admission is wrong, nor ro mention that she is a product of AA given that she is a women (minority group) and jewish (minority group).

    I do completely think Sarah has the right to express dissatisfaction with AA, but she does not have the right to attack groups because of her belief. That’s where the line should have been drawn, but was over reached.

  • ef

    okay, so… if Sarah has the right to express dissatisfaction…what would a fair criticism of affirmative action – in other words, one that doesn’t attack “groups” or “real people” – look like to you? what’s a reasonable point that someone could make against affirmative action, that you wouldn’t consider to be hateful or an attack on race?

  • ef

    look… I support AA, at the very least for education. but i don’t see why we can’t call it what it is. calling it an “admissions boost” doesn’t inherently diminish it, or suggest that there isn’t a legitimate reason for the boost. it is quite literally an exogenous admissions boost that offsets ONE type of adversity that some applicants face. there are plenty of other types of adversity out there that applicants face that don’t have official programs to offset them. I get what you’re saying about it being just another factor, like anything you would take into account… but the whole point of the AA debate (or really any admissions debate) is this question: what is a legitimate thing to give an admissions boost for, and what is not a legitimate thing to give an admissions boost for. Top SAT scores, I think we can agree people should get a bump for that. Athletic prowess… there’s debate. Race… there’s debate. The concept of affirmative action is exactly “giving an applicant an admissions boost” for a particular factor of their total package. And the AA debate is whether or not that boost should be applied, given its total contribution to admissions fairness, and taking into account other benefits (e.g. diversity). You and I may not feel that the legitimacy is debatable… but clearly it is. Arguing that the entitlement is a given is not an argument in and of itself.

  • 2015girl

    Great point. Funny how the people who claim to be the most tolerant can be some of the most intolerant, angry, and illogical people in the world. I know that there have been points when I’ve been afraid to share my true political opinions due to the hatred and anger people here have toward anyone who does not agree with them.

  • Wyatt Troia

    Thanks for your comment, but I have to say that you won’t make things any better with that attitude. You’re essentially saying no one can question affirmative action who doesn’t benefit from it and are preemptively accusing anyone who does of being against “equality of opportunity for all minority groups.”
    It would be more helpful to engage with people who disagree with you rather than tell them they don’t get a say in anything and that they are bad people. You might protect AA for awhile that way, but you’ll pay a high price in resentment by those you try to silence.

    There is absolutely not a consensus on AA on this campus or in this country. Pretending there is and marginalizing those who disagree with you only pushes a consensus farther away. You’ve got to be willing to discuss the issue.

    Clearly this is a sensitive issue that people take personally. But that goes for people on both sides. While the original author should have been more careful to avoid hurting the feelings of UR minorities, supporters of AA need to be more mindful of the feelings of those who think AA unfairly stacks the deck against them in the college admissions process.

    Btw: I am pretty sure Jews have never benefitted from AA and I don’t think colleges give women a boost anymore either.

  • sick of white privilege

    Wyatt, you concerned yourself with defending Jane Doe’s right to express her Anti AA while stating that there were unfortunate errors in Doe’s argument. Then you go on to disregard the responses Doe received. Those ‘arguments’ expressed have the same right and demand the same respect (if not more!). Doe had the privilege of publishing and so do you — while I can ‘respect’ your rights of freedom of expression — I also can excercise my rights. I think your article is bs. Your points are clearly biased and I am not surprised that you are a white male writer.

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  • Disappointed

    Basically, you’re trying to protect a friend. That’s not journalism.

  • Wyatt Troia

    No. I don’t think anyone should have baseless and serious allegations against her follow her for the rest of their lives as she applies for jobs. I excluded her name because nobody deserves that, not because I speak with her occasionally.

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  • Hooked

    This woman basically attacked the entire black and latino community at Harvard. Reread her article. Are you certain that what she wrote doesn’t imply that blacks and latinos are inherently less intelligent?

    And as for the reaction, wouldn’t you be angry if someone tried to say that the group you’re apart of is less academically qualified and shouldn’t be here? Believe it or not, that is what she meant to say. Your article shows that you have no respect for the anger of people you don’t understand, and you seem to be unwilling to even try to understand it. What you won’t admit is that as a white male conservative, a group that has been policing the emotions of everyone else for centuries now, you are inclined to agree with her.

    Jane Doe’s article was disgusting, and yours really isn’t a whole lot better. I particularly disliked when you stated the responses were incomplete because they lacked what you believe affirmative action to be about, as if you have more than a basic idea of it. Please don’t claim to know how to talk about affirmative action, because you don’t. Like Jane Doe, for you the fact that affirmative action helps black people, too, is enough to make you hate it and only concentrate on the racial aspect of it. You don’t truly want equality in this country because it means you’ll have to share with everybody else.

  • J Cheeves ’17

    Niggers. They’re savages. You can count on it.

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