My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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affirmative action: diversity in universities and conferences

In the techno-centric, meritocratic culture that i live in, i’m often faced with logic processes that make sense given a set of accepted axioms, but fundamentally fail due to the lack of an entire picture. One of my favorites is affirmative action. It still bugs me to a core that i’m at a University that eliminated affirmative action from its admissions process and i’m really frustrated that the flawed logic that undermined affirmative action in this State is getting perpetuated more broadly.

The anti-affirmative action logic is simple because it’s based on a meritocratic principle – the best people should be admitted regardless of race, class, gender, etc.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few missing components, many of which were brought up in the debates. Most obviously, there is a question of whether or not people have an equal and fair chance of acquiring the skills necessary to achieve. This logic asks us to look at the potential of an individual, removed from the context in which they were born and raised. Herein lies a deeper problem – can we remove people from that context? There’s an amazing book called Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Anti-discrimination Law that covers this beautifully.

What is missing in all of the debate, as far as i can tell, is a clear analysis of what things like universities do. When i was in high school, i was often advised to attend the local or state school because i would get just as good of an education there as at any hoity toity private school. The fact of the matter is that’s really bad advice. What those “elite” colleges offer has nothing to do with curriculum or formal education – it has to do with social networks. First, by being far away from family and the local networks, students are faced with a myriad of fresh faces from very different parts of the world. One’s social network expands tremendously in such settings. Plus, in those private institutions, many of your fellow students are heavily connected (through their parents) to all sorts of powerful business people, politicians, etc. Going to such an institution allowed me to jump socioeconomic class in a way that never would’ve been possible otherwise.

College may appear to be about education, but it is primarily about creating the social network that will help you begin your adult life. For this reason, leaving out any group of people continues to marginalize them, limiting their ability for socio-cultural shifts. Let’s be honest – the jocks didn’t get in for their brains – they got in because they play an important social role in the coherence of the university. And alumni’s kids? They too play a critical role in maintaining the social network. Yet, institutions cannot be all about one group of people – this would further homogenize the social network. It needs to be as diverse as possible to alter the networks of all involved, particularly at the most formative years. This is how you achieve shifts in social culture – one generation at a time.

Sure, you don’t want to bring in a population to participate for social networks only to not prepare them such that they fail. But there are other ways to help alleviate the discrepancies, often through programming and making certain that the system is prepared to deal with diversity and help people find ways to connect on common ground. (This was what prompted me to help run a program back at Brown for pre-frosh who were from the city and had non access to computers.)

Now, it’s important to note that this doesn’t just apply to university. In the tech world, people often moan at Liz and i when we make snarky comments about how few women are at conferences. What do you think conferences are? Meritocratic events? Bullshit. They’re social networking events first and foremost. The more women and other minorities you include, the more they get integrated into the network and the more the network diversifies. Folks in the tech world seem to be fascinated by how social networks work, but at the same time, the application of it to the culture at hand is atrocious. Yes, it’s forced and painful at first. And we’re not idiots – i know i get invited to things for the diversity quotient. And guess what? I tend to bring other women along… funny how that happens. Diversification doesn’t happen magically – it has to start as a conscientious effort. And we all need to move beyond our utopian fantasy of a meritocratic society that will transcend all realities about how race, class and gender are operationalized and institutionalized. Or more accurately, we have to actually make that happen, not by trying to be blind to these issues, but to be very conscious of how they exist in our society. And by being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing to actually diversify instead of homogenize. ‘Cuz damnit, the meritocratic attitude of the tech industry has not proven effective at all.

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13 comments to affirmative action: diversity in universities and conferences

  • Hmm… being a social scientist, what I am about to say is soooo un-social-science… Funny how my choice of college for my undergraduate education certainly had an impact on my future, but more in the rigor of education given rather than social networks. I can count on my fingers the number of people with whom I am still in contact due to my undergraduate school. I would say that while some of those expiences were instrumental in shaping me (as experience with anything usually is), the social networks of my college life did very very little. Maybe I am a late bloomer, but I would say graduate school is the first time when I can actually state that I have been building a social network. Maybe this has to do with my personality, but I would say that my choice in conferences and workshops that I attended had much more to do with it than even my current school. For some people, what school they attend may matter more than for others. Yet I know how it feels to get rejected from something purely on the basis of race or gender (even if there is an argument of opportunity tacked on to it). Someone else gets the chance you wanted because they are the “right” gender or race, even if they are not nearly as good as you…

    And yet… this is easier to accept if you are prepared for it. There is a book by a sci fi writer – Peter Hamilton, called the Reality Dysfunction. It’s a decent scifi novel, but there is an idea there (far from main) that I found intriguing. There is a really rich, very stable, very progressive kindgdom there. Not all the members of the family, of course, can be involved in matters politics so many of them go off to other jobs. Because they have grown up with privelege, they have to prove they are better than everyone else for every opportunity of advancement… they don’t just have to be better, they have to be better without a shadow of doubt and far above their competitors to advance. This is done because they naturally receive a “privelege handicap”. They must make people around them believe that the advancement they gain is really based on their merit and not their name. They accept that they will never be able to reach the highest office of their chosen direction due to this handicap. It is something they know, when they choose their path. It’s an interesting idea…

  • I’ve always had mixed feelings about affirmative action; the meritocratic argument is powerful at first glance, but as you point out it falls apart with any kind of careful analysis.

    But the problem with “affirmative action” as it’s so often implemented is that it starts to do things for you when you’re around eighteen years old. Which, in my opinion, is eighteen years too late. What I’d like to see is a move away from emphasizing affirmative action as only being something universities and employers do, and toward emphasizing greater equality for all children as they grow up.

    As to the purpose of college, I’d add that a truly good college also prepares you to spend the rest of your life thinking on your feet and dealing with things you’ve never seen before; the social aspect (especially if you live in a dorm, and every year get thrown in with a new bunch of people you’ve never met) of this is huge, but I don’t think it’s the only aspect.

  • Nick

    I think the question of whether or not people have an equal and fair chance to succeed is a valid one, but that it must be approached with greater care than affirmative action programs tend to.

    If you select person A (member of an “underrepresented” group), over person B (member of an “overrepresented” group), you are in fact, screwing over person B, no matter how much of a greater good it may seem to be for.

    It’s taking the purposeless aggregated screwing-over of discrimination and turing it into an institutionalised screwing-over-with-purpose. The better solutions revolve around the idea of not screwing people over at all. Oddly enough, the way to have equality is to treat people equally.

    I say this as a rich white male highschool dropout.

  • Seems like there are interesting parallels between your example of afirmative action in universities and the US public school bussing programs that started in the 1970s.

    Although most bussing programs failed because of logistical and cultural complications, the ones that succeeded had an effect on the issue of geographic neighborhoods acting as barriers to social network connections (e.g., to cultural and economic opportunities).

    In Los Angeles in the 1970s-80s, there was the “magnet” school program which created some schools that were like colleges in that each student had to apply to get in, and kids from all over LA attended (pretty much all were bussed) rather than from just 1-2 local neighborhoods. Admission criteria was based around the goal creating a diverse student body that would succeed academically.

    I attended two magnet schools and each was a totally different network of families / neighborhoods / cultures / businesses than the ones connected with my neighboorhood schools. It seemed like a totally good thing to me.

    (AFAIK, the magnet schools still exist in LA–they’re just not called magnet schools any longer. I think this model is more common now in many places too.)

    Also, I think your points could be applied to efforts to get past the apparent logic of separate-but-equal.

  • Bringing Affirmative Action to Blogging

  • To be honest, this is the most convincing argument I’ve seen for affirmative action. I’m not quite convinced just yet, but I can definately see the network value that diverse groups bring to the university (even the jocks).
    The issue I have is that race is only one factor in diversity. If I grew up next to someone of a different race than me, hung out together all the time in the same social groups, went to school together, etc, then that person doesn’t exactly alter the University network any more than I do upon acceptence. In fact, I wonder whether or not its more effective to look for economic, rather than racial diversity. I think about this related to my nieces, who are, through my sister-in-law’s background, now considered “minorities.” However, they have not learned Spanish nor have they grown up in a particularly culturally diverse area. What other networks are they bringing to the table? Race is not the only factor in determining whether or not someone’s acceptance brings more diversity to a University.

  • Mike

    wow, the first sane argument for affirmative action i’ve ever heard. i’m still not convinced yet but i am definately going to read this a few times. i think my issue with A.A. is the exclusionary aspect. all of the positive social results from screwing over a qualified individual still doesnt justify A.A. in my mind.

    thanks danah

  • Consplicator

    An interesting and sophisticated argument in favor of affirmative action, but it quickly reduces to the following maxim: “diversity is an inherent societal good.”

    It is pointless to argue that affirmative action in a given setting results in increased diversity in that setting – clearly it does. The question is, at what expense? (if any, for all you dogmatics out there).

    In short, arguing for institutionalized racism (which is what AA boils down to if you are being honest) without addressing whether the above maxim is true is a sollopsistic waste of time.

    If one is looking for a counter-example to the notion that diversity equals great society, check out Japan, which is 99.5% ethnically pure, and seems to be doing okay. On the other hand, one can easily see that forcing a society into ethnic or racial homogenuity by use of government power has historically led to the horrors of nazism and fascism.

    Pick your poison.

  • Consplicator

    Thanks for posting my comments. Looks like you are unable to deal with a little intellectual diversity by way of a divergent opinion. Typical liberal – too insecure to even consider you might be wrong.

  • I am liberal. I abhor A.A. Do you realize how many asians are excluded from colleges and universities? Most colleges/universities have a maximum percentage acceptance level for asians, contrasting with the minimum acceptance level for others. These exclusionary tactics are unnecessary, especially when all we have to do is spend more govt money in education to bring up the quality of education at its roots, rather than spending govt money on stuff like wars and tax cuts.

  • Affirmative action is a construct – it’s implementations vary tremendously and it doesn’t have to have caps for Asians nor does it everywhere.

  • mike

    The costs of affirmative action are numerous, yet one can condense them into three main arguments against the policy. One major argument is that although affirmative action was made originally to end racial inequality it tries to do this by giving preference to racial minorities, giving preference by race, by skin color, is wrong, unjust; when done by an agency of the state it is unlawful, a violation of federal statutes and of our Constitution. The motives are often good, and one can understand that. But the conduct is wrong and not tolerable in a good society. One example is when, in his Brief in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall, then executive director of the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote in 1954: “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state, bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere.”
    The argument is that by supporting affirmative action, the United States is being hypocritical because they say that they support equality with affirmative action when in reality it provides minorities with a superior chance of acceptance than a white male, costing American majorities equal opportunity. Another cost of affirmative action a lower level of achievement, and at times dropouts among the encouraged ethnic minorities. In many colleges affirmative action provides some quota to fulfill regarding the number of students admitted. This is usually directly proportional the composition of the general population. In other words if ten percent or the population were Asian then ten percent of the college students would be Asian. This means that regardless of the qualifications of that white guy, who is the 2051st of the 2050 white guy’s who are accepted, he can’t go to that college even though he is more qualified to attend than many of the minorities who are accepted to fulfil the quota. This results in the admittance of ethnically diverse, yet less qualified students who may or may not be able to handle the load of the educational institution they were admitted in. While there are certainly many well-qualified applicants of ethnic minority, the percent of applicants for admittance to universities with competitive admissions who are qualified minorities isn’t nearly as high as the percent of the general population who are ethnic minorities, as affirmative action assumes. The real problem is not discrimination at the college level-but inferior education or lack of effort by ethnic minorities in the schools. According to federal testing data, the average African-American student in 12th grade performs at about the same level as the average white student in 8th grade. In every subject area tested by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress-whether reading, science, mathematics, history or geography-there was a four-year difference in the scores of white and African-American high school seniors. Hispanic seniors are almost as far behind on the same measures. This is why ethnic majorities often experience “reverse discrimination” at the hands of affirmative action wielding admissions committees. Affirmative action, with specific regard to college admissions, is a policy that doesn’t even solve for what it attempting to: racial inequality. According to Marie Gryphon, a lawyer and policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, “Minority under-representation in college is caused by public schools’ failure to prepare minority students” It is a failure that affirmative action does not remedy.” Affirmative action does not even significantly affect college access because most four-year schools are not selective, and will accept any student with a high school education. Preferences for minority students only matter at the 20 to 30 percent of colleges where admissions are competitive. Preferences at these selective schools have not increased college access for minorities because most minorities leave high school without the minimum credentials necessary to attend any four-year school. Political scientist Jay Green, who found that only 20 percent of African-American students and 16 percent of Hispanics leave high school with the minimum credentials, supports this. The cost of implementing affirmative action is thus wasted on a very ineffective tool, causing other harm in the process.

    I say this as a 17 year old white male who is applying for college at the moment, and have some anxiety about AA although i have a 1560 Sat…and a 3.9XX, and likely won’t need to worry, as i’m not applying to a wourld-class supper school.

    Please respond