'The Diversity Bargain': How Students View Affirmative Action

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Natasha Warikoo (Courtesy)
Natasha Warikoo (Courtesy)

In her book, "The Diversity Bargain," Natasha Warikoo, associate professor of education at Harvard, explores the views of affirmative action among students at three elite colleges.

She interviewed more than 100 students at Harvard, Brown and Oxford and found that many students make what she calls the "diversity bargain" — or the willingness to support affirmative action in greater numbers than the overall population, in exchange for the personal benefit of a diverse learning environment.


Natasha Warikoo, associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She tweets @nkwarikoo.

Interview Highlights

On the students' thoughts about affirmative action

"So I'll talk about the United States because in Britain, there really is no affirmative action and there was no support for it among students, whether class or race-based.

In the United States, students were more likely than the average American to support affirmative action, but they did so and their justification was that — well, it creates this diverse learning environment and that's good for me. Because I know that I need to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives in order to be a well-educated citizen of the world.

I should say that there were a range of perspectives, but this was the most common one and the most widely shared."

On the idea that affirmative action is generally spoken about as good for minority students

"I think the public debate is often about this question that you're talking about, but in higher education, part of the way that universities tends to talk about admissions is through this diversity argument.

And part of this dates back to the way that affirmative action has been dealt with in the U.S. Supreme Court. So if we go back to the late 1970s the Bakke decision where ... Justice Powell said well, you can consider race among a whole host of other considerations in a kind of holistic review. You can't have quotas, but you can do that in as much as it serves a compelling state interest — and that interest was this idea of a diverse learning environment.

... And this is the one legal justification that has been accepted in courts and that has been used. And universities have really taken this on and that's the language that they use. And so I think students hear it from their college counselors when they're in high school, they hear it again when they get to college, there's all this talk of diversity. And you know I think that on the one hand I think that's positive. There are there's a lot of research to show that this diverse learning environment really does positively impact students of all ethnic backgrounds and racial backgrounds, but it also misses this larger question of inequality that you're talking about and the benefits to students who are are the targets of affirmative action."

On what the "diversity bargain" is

"The diversity bargain is this in the United States: that students are more likely to support affirmative action than you know most ordinary Americans ... but white students do so in exchange for a few expectations, and I talk about three in the book.

The first one is that students, they expect black and Latino students on campus — who they assume all black and Latino students have benefited from affirmative action — that they should integrate with their white peers, because affirmative action is about creating this diverse learning environment. When they notice say, a table of black students in the cafeteria, or their Latino roommate doing the Latino students association, they feel like well, isn't the point that you're here to integrate? And why are you in that minority space.

Of course, they don't always notice all the tables of white students in the cafeteria and don't understand how those minority-dominant spaces might be important support networks for those students ...

The second ... is that white students sometimes had a centralized understanding of what it means to be black or Latino. So they would say things like well, there was a black student in my high school, but you know, [s/he] had a very 'white experience' and that student shouldn't benefit from affirmative action ... There's this idea that in order to be seen as black or Latino, you have to have had a certain kind of lived experience. So rather than expanding what it means to be black or Latino in the United States, which is a range of class backgrounds, etc. that is a narrow understanding.

The third implication is what I call a reverse discrimination script — that if affirmative action is there to benefit me, then I'm very quick to claim reverse discrimination if I don't get something.

So I had a white student say, if I hadn't gotten into Harvard — this is a student at Harvard — then I would have felt that I'd been discriminated against if someone else that I knew and who was equally qualified and who was a minority, if they'd gotten in over me ... So I call it a script because it's already there. Imagine the student now going on to apply to graduate school, or an internship, or a job and not getting it. Affirmative action becomes a quick target. And again, because affirmative action is supposed to benefit that student, any loss or any any setback can be easily attributed."

On what she took away from her conversations with students about the way we talk about affirmative action

"I do think that, especially when we think about higher education, and the whole like lead up to higher education in terms of college counseling ... is that we do need a shift in terms of really helping students understand the historical roots of racial inequality in the United States.

I feel like we do not do as good a job in helping students understand how it is that black students were systematically excluded from these universities. And that when we have had all these means of social mobility -- the G.I. Bill that was supposed to bring social mobility to these G.I.s coming back from war — how black students were allowed to be excluded from these universities. And so there were all these ways in which racial inequality got perpetuated in the United States and specifically in higher education. But students don't really understand that and we don't teach about it in history class."

On what students of color said about their views of affirmative action

"Students of color also talked about appreciating the diversity of their college environments and talked a lot about that. But as you might expect, [they] didn't see their role on campus as there to edify their white peers. That got very tiring for them and they were there to get an education just like everyone else.

... In the book I also talk about race relations on campus and a lot of the students of color talked about these kind of pivotal moments in their childhoods in which they experienced a pretty serious kind of racial incident. You know a teacher saying, 'Well, I didn't expect you to be getting these kinds of grades. Look at the kids who are in the honors class — you don't look like them.' And all kinds of stories like this. And so they bring those kind of experiences with them to college and are unsure about what that experience on a predominately white campus is going to be like."

On if students will take these views of affirmative action beyond their college experience

"That's one of the things I say in the book is that why I care about these students on these elite campuses and what they think so much is that they are our future leaders. They're going to take those ideas about fairness and what's a fair system of selection as they go off and become the employers and they're making hiring decisions, or policy makers and they're deciding on the welfare state, or working in the media and shaping the discourse on how we think and talk about race and fairness and equity And so I think it is very important how they're thinking about this and it's very problematic and worrisome that there's a lack of talk of racial inequality and the way that that impacts students lives."

This segment aired on September 18, 2017.



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