The first thing Avery* ’13 did after finding out that she had been accepted to college was buy a school sweatshirt. A week later, it was buried under a pile of laundry and dirty socks in her closet.
“I stopped wearing it because I was tired of the comments,” Avery said. “I felt self-conscious. Usually it’s not super obvious stuff, but I’ve also had kids say things along the lines of ‘you only got in because you’re black’ or ‘you aren’t going to be able to cut it academically.’”
Affirmative action is often a delicate issue at a school where students are so invested in college admissions.
According to a Chronicle poll of 305 students, 30% support the measure, 42% are against it and 28% are undecided.
Affirmative action was initiated in the 1960s to counteract historic discrimination faced by ethnic minorities and women, allowing them to enter universities and professions that had formerly been off-limits. Then, starting in the 1990s, several states passed laws banning the measure, including California. Current detractors say that affirmative action unfairly prioritizes less qualified individuals while penalizing whites, Asians and women.
“I think it’s unfair,” Angelo* ’14 said. “Although [colleges] claim that they’re being fair, they’re just maintaining racial divisions in another form. It’s still discrimination, no matter how good the intentions. I study hard, I work hard, yet somehow I’m less deserving because of the color of my skin.”
Supporters of affirmative action counter that the measure is necessary to compensate for social factors that stack the deck against minorities.
“I strongly believe that it’s in place to correct an imbalance,” Jensen McRae ’15 said. “Because African-Americans and other people of color represent a certain percentage of the population, that should be reflected in areas like college. When you have a group that’s at such a disadvantage in so many ways, you need to counteract that.”
McRae said that affirmative action should be used only as a “tiebreaker” between two students of equal ability. Nevertheless, she believes that minority students can sometimes appear less qualified not because they are any less hardworking or intelligent, but because they often lack the resources and support system that many at Harvard-Westlake have.
“If you look at the pure numbers at certain institutions you can see kids who are not as qualified, but you also have to take into consideration socioeconomic factors,” McRae said. “For example, I’m African-American but I go to a really affluent school and have access to SAT tutors and so on, so my SAT scores need to be reflective of that. But if you look at a kid who’s Latino and goes to an inner city school and whose parents don’t speak English, that kid could be perfectly qualified to go to a top university, but because he didn’t have access to the same resources, he’s going to score much lower on the SAT.”
Those who support affirmative action also believe that it has a positive impact on more than just members of minority groups.
“You’re enriched by rooming with someone whose first language wasn’t English or being in class with someone who’s from a totally different socioeconomic status,” upper school dean Beth Slattery said. “I think that people see it in a very narrow light, like ‘you didn’t deserve it and I did.’ I see it as everyone brings different things to the table, and colleges get to decide what they need in that particular class. To be honest, it would be a super boring experience if everybody out of college came from an experience exactly like Harvard-Westlake. I would not want to go to that college.”
Statistics show that a university’s diversity decreases when affirmative action is eliminated. After California made admission race-blind, the number of Latinos and African-Americans enrolled at UC Berkley and UCLA dropped over 50 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and the schools’ graduation rates also slightly increased. Some students, though, question how relevant diversity is to having a positive college experience.
“It’s not as though I live on another planet and don’t know what people of color are like,” Payton* ’16 said. “This is Los Angeles. I already have a good sense of diversity. Sure, race is still an issue in this country, but my sitting next to a kid whose skin is darker isn’t going to change anything. If I’m looking for more exposure to other cultures and lifestyles, I’d rather it not be at the expense of my chances of getting into college.”
Although 61 percent of students believe that affirmative action has a negative effect on their chances of admission, some support it nevertheless.
“During the college process, it was sometimes hard because I didn’t want to have less of a shot getting in somewhere because of my race, but I decided it wasn’t that big a factor and that it’s important that our country takes steps to make up for discrimination,” Zoe Bohn ’14 said, adding that ideally affirmative action would take into account socioeconmic status in addition to race.
Though the school has no official position on affirmative action, deans say they nevertheless must take it into account when advising students who are applying to college.
“I might call [a college] a 50/50 instead of a realistic challenge because historically students of color with their credentials have been admitted,” Slattery said. “So I will make [race] a part of the conversation, just as I might do that with gender. If I know a particular school’s gender ratio is unbalanced, then I might say to a boy ‘well, that’s a school that’s actually looking to increase their male population, so you might stand a better chance than if you were a girl.’ There have been times [when I felt race has determined the outcome]. But I think it really depends on the school. If you’re talking about a school that’s in the middle of New York City, it’s not going to have that hard a time getting a diverse population.”
Slattery said that although deans rarely receive complaints about affirmative action outright, she knows it’s a topic of discussion among students.
“You’ll hear kids snicker,” Slattery said. “I remember sitting here and listening to three kids talk about something that wasn’t fair, and of the three kids, two of them were athletes and one was a development case, all of whom got into schools that they had no shot at otherwise and yet they were complaining about race being a factor.”
Apart from students learning about affirmative action as it affects them in college admissions, all juniors discuss the issue as part of their United States history classes.
“It’s always a sensitive topic,” history teacher Francine Werner ’68 said. “I try to stick to the history and not get caught up in the issue’s more delicate political side.”
For all the debate surrounding affirmative action, plenty of students remain undecided.
“I’m not actively against or for it,” Cameron Victor ’15 said. “I understand why colleges would do that, and I think it’s good that they have more diverse atmospheres and that opportunities are opened to minorities. On the other hand, I am a girl and white so it doesn’t do me any favors. I guess I just find it presumptuous that a college thinks they know me because of my race.”
Slattery believes that affirmative action is just one more aspect of the college process.
“People don’t equate all the hooks,” Slattery said. “They see affirmative action as unfair but if they have some sort of connection, that’s not unfair. Like I tell parents in meetings, we all want colleges to value whatever our kid has. If I have a baseball player, then I hope the school cares a lot about baseball. If you have a kid who has a 4.5, it should just be about GPA. We all just want what we want, and affirmative action is easy to single out.”
*Names have been changed