Stir the Pot: Admit ‘Descendants’ and Foreigners

If you want to whip up a batch of controversy at some of America’s most selective colleges and universities, here’s a sure-fire recipe: Start with the volatile issue of affirmative action. Add the sensitive subject of natives feeling pushed aside by foreigners. Mix in the legacy of racism, the sense of entitlement felt by many Americans and the pressures of competing in a global economy. Leave to boil.

Things are getting awfully hot now that black intellectuals are openly questioning whether the commitment to diversity at some of the best schools is only skin deep. The concern is that many schools are trying to diversify their campuses by admitting individuals from Africa or the West Indies in place of African-American students.

The dependably controversial Lani Guinier, now of Harvard Law School, and Henry Louis Gates, chairman of that school’s African and African-American studies department, addressed the issue at a recent gathering of black Harvard alumni. Perhaps as few as a third of the school’s 500 or so black undergraduates come from families where all four grandparents were born in this country, the academics informed the alumni. The American-born students have begun to notice the trend and have taken to calling themselves “the descendants” – as in the U.S.-born descendants of slaves.

The fact that so many of the students are foreign-born worries Professors Guinier and Gates. First, it’s a safe bet that this isn’t exactly what the proponents of affirmative action had in mind when they conceived of racial preferences to somehow compensate for the negative effects of decades of institutional racism and discrimination.

And, second, some observers of higher education think that Harvard and other elite schools may be trying to pull a fast one, admitting high-achieving foreign students as an easy way to meet diversity goals. Could be. When I was a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1980s, I could never shake the feeling that the institution was forever pretending to be more inclusive than it really was. It would carefully admit a sprinkling of African-American and Hispanic students.

Working in the admissions office – first as a file clerk and later as a recruiter – I could see that those admitted were often the cream of the crop. They may have had 1400 SAT scores, or been high school valedictorians or student body presidents. This wasn’t affirmative action. It was just the latest example of what Harvard has long done: acknowledge excellence.

There was precious little risk taking. Few of my classmates came from small farm towns or barrio high schools. The idea back then seemed to be to achieve diversity while still playing it safe. These days, it could be that the safe route is to admit high-performing foreign students.

But it’s the first complaint that I have the most trouble with: the idea that admitting foreign students to meet diversity goals runs counter to the reason that affirmative action came about in the first place, namely to compensate for some past injustice. I don’t know about you, but – even as someone who can be persuaded into supporting some of the more benign forms of affirmative action, such as outreach efforts – I never bought that line. In fact, of all the justifications for race-conscious admissions policies, the “past injustice” argument is about the silliest and most problematic.

For one thing, it’s not like any society could ever fully compensate for the horrors of slavery or the injustice of land-grabs that stripped Native Americans and Mexican-Americans of their rightful holdings. Besides, even if it could make up for something like that, how do you get there by admitting a bunch of mostly middle-class high achievers into elite colleges and universities?

We need to either get rid of affirmative action or come up with a better rationale for keeping it. Here’s one: Racial or ethnic diversity only enhances the college or university experience. If you want to train young men and young women for leadership roles in a rapidly changing society, you have to start by changing the composition of the student body. You should never lower standards, and everyone who is admitted had better be able to do the work.

But being exposed to diverse life experiences and points of view has an intrinsic value. You can achieve it by admitting the descendants of sharecroppers. But you also can get there by welcoming in immigrants and the children of immigrants. This whole controversy should provide a lesson for Americans – of all colors. It’s a complicated and competitive world. Whatever it is you think you offer, chances are that someone else offers something similar. So work hard and offer as much as possible.

Ruben Navarrette is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is