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Tuesday, October 24, 2017
The Difference Between Diversity and Equity
Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his Department of Justice would be conducting an investigation Harvard University's affirmative action policies. The highly political move is seen by critics as an unnecessary assault on students of color, set against a backdrop of increasing public acts of white supremacy, which the Trump administration has repeatedly failed to denounce. Opponents see it as an opportunity to force courts to make clearer rulings with respect to race-based admissions.

Harvard is already embroiled in a class-action lawsuit against over 60 Asian-American organizations claiming that high performing Asian students are being edged out by peers with lower grades and test scores. This lawsuit was spearheaded by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who is not an attorney. Blum also initiated the Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, argued that white students were harmed by a Texas' admission policy designed to increase racial diversity at its public colleges. Fisher lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many states, however, have already abolished affirmative action. The U.S. Supreme Court has circumvented the heart of the issue by ruling that universities are allowed to make "holistic" assessments of incoming students. The buzzword here is "diversity", and the problem lies in its double-meaning. Activists like Blum argue that it is code for admitting students of color with weaker academic records. Universities claim diversity is not directly related to race, but rather an attempt to cultivate a heterogeneous student body.

In practice, equality and diversity are two distinct concepts. Affirmative action policies aim to address the social, economic and racial factors that continuously give white, wealthy students an edge. Activists like Blum reject that view, claiming that admissions policies should not discriminate against anyone, and that evaluating based on merit alone is the fairest approach.

Harvard accepts around than 5% of applicants-about 2,000 students per year. This begs a very obvious question: why would the DoJ waste resources on an investigation of a private university, the policies of which affect such a small fraction of the country's population? Like Blum, the DoJ is indulging in hyperbolic political theatre. In practice, the desired result will affect very few students. Its symbolism, however, would be thunderous.

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