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Natasha Kumar Warikoo on affirmative action


Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, which publishes this fall, examines how both white students and students of color understand race and privilege at three top-tier universities—Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. Culminating in what Warikoo calls “the diversity bargain”—white students agree with affirmative action abstractly as long as it benefits them personally—the book argues that the slippery notions that sustain social inequalities on college campuses are hugely impacted not only by the student body, but also by the practices of universities themselves.

In a recent piece for the Boston Globe, Warikoo expanded on her findings:

However, in my research with undergraduates at Ivy League universities, I have found that this narrow justification shapes students’ conceptions of fairness and equity in admissions. Many white students at elite colleges agree with affirmative action only because they understand it benefits them through interaction with their minority peers. As a result, some are upset when they see tables of black peers in the cafeteria, when their black peers join the Black Students Association, or when Latino peers spend their time at Centers for Students of Color. What they don’t understand is that those organizations can be lifelines for students unfamiliar with the culture of elite, predominantly white universities, and who share experiences with racial injustice.

The sole emphasis on benefits to themselves also leads many white students to fear that affirmative action may in the future limit their opportunities. Affirmative action becomes an easy scapegoat when they fail in competitive processes like graduate school admission, summer internships, and jobs. One student at Harvard shared his worries about what some call reverse discrimination: “If I hadn’t gotten into Harvard I would have felt that I’d been discriminated against. If someone else that I knew and was equally qualified who was an ethnic minority had gotten in above me.” Affirmative action is an easy target when its only justification is the benefit of whites.

The diversity-of-voices lens misses the point. Affirmative action is about expanding opportunity and recalibrating our imprecise measures of merit so that they take our nation’s legacy of systemic and institutional racism into consideration. And we adults feed white students’ anxiety when we do not say so.

To read Warikoo’s piece at the Boston Globe in full, click here.

To read more about The Diversity Bargain, click here.