Affirmative action can lead to catch-22

I was at a minority recruiting event the other day for graduate school, when a student (a “diversity applicant,” as she was likely labeled by the admissions committee) asked what I thought was an unnecessary question: “What efforts are there at the university to recruit African-American and Latino professors?”

In response to the question, a dean tried to reassure the audience that the university attracted top minority scholars who almost always received tenure. He was quick to add that this was due to the quality of their work and not their race or ethnicity. While I appreciated the clarification, I was beginning to tire of the event. Session after session, it began to reek of an affirmative action love fest.

I tried to think ahead to the time when, if all goes well, I’ll be a professor. Would I want to be known as a “top female Hispanic economist” or just a “top economist?” I think the answer is clear. What’s unclear is to what extent these factors come into play in academia and other fields. Based on bits and pieces I’ve gathered from students and professors at various universities, I have come to believe that belonging to an under-represented group does serve as an advantage. It’s just hard to tell how big and how unfair of one.

The problem with affirmative action (whether acknowledged or not) is that it is far from simple. I would not realistically denounce efforts to even out the playing field or make certain professions more diverse. After all, these are legitimate ends that serve a greater social purpose. But I can’t always make up my mind as to when this obsession with diversity can become counterproductive.

Take the field of academia. The National Science Foundation gives millions of dollars each year for various minority research and support programs. I have taken advantage of some of these opportunities, and feel I have them to thank for my graduate school outcomes. As a minority, I do not always have access to the same opportunities as, say, a white male at an Ivy, and I am glad that these programs exist.

But as someone who wants to think of herself as “capable” before “minority,” I have begun to engage in some self-doubt as to whether my admission into competitive schools had more to do with my ethnicity than my ability. The easiest thing to do is to shrug it off—who cares why I got in somewhere or why I was given funding? Now that I’m in, I can prove myself, minority or not.

Still, would I feel the same way if I was of a different race or nationality? In addition to labeling U.S. students who are “diversity applicants,” I have also learned that schools make the distinction between Asians and non-Asians. Again, this strategy makes sense in order to increase diversity, not just out of what conservative pundits may call “liberal guilt,” but also to create a more balanced learning environment.

I’ve heard more than once that if admissions in economics were solely based on proven technical ability, some entering classes would be shockingly homogenous. But if I was a qualified Chinese applicant who had to jump through more hoops than an American one to gain admission or funding into a program, I may be a bit more upset. In this case, justice trumps fairness.

What’s more is that some of these distinctions are fairly arbitrary. Two otherwise identical Hispanic students could be treated completely differently depending on whether one is a U.S. permanent resident or citizen. By the same token, an affluent African-American born to college-educated parents could receive advantages that a low-income, white student born in a rural area would not have access to.

When I recently learned of a program for graduate students in under-represented groups, I was torn as to whether I would want to participate. Instinctively, I want to milk any “advantage” I can get. But, perhaps out of personal pride, I don’t want to take any shortcuts that may undermine my achievements. I hope the quality of my work one day speaks for itself, and the last thing I want is for someone to look at me and think, “She must have been a minority admit.”

The process of undoing centuries of injustice is obviously a daunting one, and I do believe that the government should continue to play a major role in increasing equality across groups (call me crazy, but I don’t think the incentive exists for any private firm or individual to provide public goods like equality and justice).

However, I’m really looking forward to the distant day when race and ethnicity are irrelevant factors.