Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Pomona Controversy Over Photograph Hunt

Eugene Volokh describes the controversy here (thanks to co-blogger Ben for the heads up), but I'll summarize it quickly: A Pomona College student-run photo scavenger hunt included taking pictures of at least 10 Asians. The school and many students seem to be pretty angry about it, and it looks like disciplinary action is coming for the students who designed the hunt.

Volokh notes that that disciplinary action is likely unconstitutional, but besides that, there's an underlying hypocrisy here.

An initial note: I highly doubt the photograph hunt was meant to be demeaning to Asians. However, if it was meant to treat them as similar to oddities in the scavenger hunt (for example: find me a heart-shaped rock, a four leaf clover, and a tall Asian person) then I can see how that would be a below-the-belt joke that no one appreciates.

But if it was simply meant to view them as a race rather than as simply people for the purposes of the hunt, this is exactly what the admissions office down the street does everyday. Admissions offices view race-as-race in their decisions constantly - they don’t care whether a Hispanic kid is poor, rich, interesting, or dull when they use race as a "tiebreaker" or as a "bonus" for admissions purposes. Many minority scholarships work the same way. Of course, Pomona may have already vetted its applicants for dullness or lack of motivation, but many schools don't. They simply view race-as-race and make their decisions, even the admit/not admit decision, accordingly.

Similarly, these students were just looking to treat Asian students as Asian for the purposes of the hunt. Does this make you uncomfortable? Then it should make you uncomfortable in the admissions context too. I'm certainly uncomfortable with both, though at least the Pomona students did it to be funny rather than to be “fair.”

But one might say: "the admissions office is looking to race to point out unique perspectives to bring to the table. It is important for the student body to represent all kinds of people, and without racial diversity we cannot hope to achieve this goal. The scavenger hunt, on the other hand, had no such inclinations. They simply wished to view people on purely-racial terms for their own enjoyment."

This line of thinking is insulting to racial minorities. Imagine again our rich, dull, Hispanic kid. He brings nothing to the table but his skin color. Yet, to the admissions office he fosters "diversity" and new points of view. If you believe this, you must believe that one's skin color is a proxy for their attitude and experiences. Note that this view cannot possibly be rectified with a color of their skin/content of their character distinction (yes, some of us still believe in this idea, and I think we’re in good company). To me, if a school is interested in targeting disadvantaged students, that's fine: provide an optional essay in which applicants may describe any significant life struggles (many schools do this already). If they want intellectual diversity, fine: ask the applicants to write a poem or opinion piece (many do this as well). But don't ask for an applicant's race – it tells you nothing more than what they’ll look like.

To the extent race affected how others looked at the applicant, and how that led them to get, say, a C in Chemistry, leave it to the essays. If a racial minority experienced truly unique and extraordinary adversity growing up, that should come out. A black kid that got beat up on his way to school everyday because of his race, and thus had a poor attendance record and mediocre grades, deserves to go to Pomona if he shows a twinkle of interest in learning. But he doesn’t deserve our help any more than the white kid from Hawaii who was beat up for the same reasons, a kid from California whose parents beat him up, or a kid from Ohio whose parents, teachers, and friends never paid enough attention to help him with his homework, let alone beat him up. On the other hand, if our rich, dull, Hispanic kid writes a pro forma "I’m writing to tell you I’m a minority and thus I’m inherently a victim" essay (see this NRO piece for a guideline on how to write such junk), hopefully his failings will come out too, and he’ll be summarily rejected if he’s not academically up to par.

Of course, this effort would require admissions officers who are actually committed to intellectual diversity. You know, as opposed to using diversity as a cover to suss out minorities and meet a quota and/or to assure themselves that they’re “good people” because all those minority kids (except Asians) need our help. What a silly and insulting way to approach a legitimate pursuit.

To conclude: whether you feel outraged about the Pomona situation or think everyone is being too uptight, remember this: the college admissions system is far worse, with far more serious implications.

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