When I was in graduate school several years ago, I spent my summers getting paid to help Asian American kids seem less Asian. I was a freelance tutor helping high school students prepare for college admissions, living only a few miles from the heavily Chinese and Chinese American neighborhood of Flushing in Queens. For my first gig, on a sweltering summer afternoon, I made my way to a cramped apartment where my teenage client told me what she needed: for me to read over her college applications and make sure she didn’t seem too Asian.
I remember laughing over the death rattle of a geriatric air-conditioning unit; I assumed she was making a joke.
But she pressed on straight faced. Good colleges don’t want to let in Asians, she felt, because they already had too many — and if she seemed too Asian, she wouldn’t get in. She rattled off a list of Asian and Asian American friends from her church with stellar extracurriculars and sterling test scores who she said had been rejected from even their safety schools.
Nearly every college admissions tutoring job I took over the next few years would come with a version of the same behest. The Chinese and Korean kids wanted to know how to make their application materials seem less Chinese or Korean. The rich white kids wanted to know ways to seem less rich and less white. The Black kids wanted to make sure they came across as Black enough. Ditto for the Latino and Middle Eastern kids.
Seemingly everyone I interacted with as a tutor — white or brown, rich or poor, student or parent — believed that getting into an elite college required what I came to call racial gamification. For these students, the college admissions process had been reduced to performance art, in which they were tasked with either minimizing or maximizing their identity in exchange for the reward of a proverbial thick envelope from their dream school. It was a game I was soon compelled to play myself: A few years later, as a Black Ph.D. candidate in search of my first gig as a professor, I agonized over how — and whether — to talk about my race in ways that would mark me as a possible diversity hire. It felt like cheating to check the box and like self-sabotage not to.
Be it for an acceptance letter or a tenure-track professorship, the incentives at elite universities encourage and reward racial gamification. This will only get worse now that the Supreme Court has rejected affirmative action in college admissions. The rise of affirmative action produced, inadvertently, a culture of racial gamification by encouraging so many students and their parents to think about the ways race could boost or complicate their chances of admission; the end of affirmative action, in turn, will just exacerbate things by causing students and parents to get even more creative.
Let me be clear that I am not an opponent of affirmative action. I don’t think I would have gotten into Haverford College as an undergraduate if it had not been for affirmative action, and the same is probably true of my Ph.D. program at New York University and the professorship I now hold at Bates College. I believe that affirmative action works, that it is necessary to redress the historical evils of chattel slavery and its myriad afterlives and, above all, that it is a crucial counterbalance against the prevailing system of de facto white affirmative action that rewards many academically mediocre (and wealthier) students for having legacy parents or for being good at rowing a boat.
Yet I also believe that affirmative action — though necessary — has inadvertently helped create a warped and race-obsessed American university culture. Before students ever step foot on a rolling green, they are encouraged to see racial identity as the most salient aspect of their personhood, inextricable from their value and merit.
Many prestigious institutions have themselves racially gamified the admissions process, finding ways to maximize diversity without making dents in their endowments. For example, some colleges and universities boost diversity statistics on the cheap by accepting minority students who can pay full freight. And even purportedly need-blind institutions seem to have a remarkable track record of recruiting minority students who don’t need financial aid. (By some estimates, over 70 percent of Harvard’s Black, Latino and Native American students have college-educated parents with incomes above the national median.)
Even though elite institutions haven’t always lived up to the spirit of affirmative action — giving a leg up to those who need it most — the present system has managed to secure some racial diversity in higher education, including for working-class minority applicants. (I was one of these students.) In the world after affirmative action, however, our unhealthy system of racial gamification will intensify without any of the benefits of racial justice and real structural redress that affirmative action afforded.
Rest assured, diversity will endure as an ethos for the simple reasons that students overwhelmingly say they want it, U.S. News & World Report factors the success of students from underrepresented backgrounds in its rankings, and — as fabulously wealthy institutions like universities, banks and tech companies that have cynically reduced diversity, equity and inclusion to a brand strategy realized — talking about diversity is cheap. It costs nothing to change a syllabus or announce a D.E.I. task force composed of existing employees.
In a bygone world where elite colleges and universities could increase racial diversity through affirmative action, such performative signaling was largely harmless. But in a new educational landscape in which race-conscious affirmative action is outlawed, toothless D.E.I. commitments will morally launder an elite higher education system that is designed — by both habit and financial expediency — to pass over many Black, brown and poor students.
As my own undergraduate institution discovered when it dropped its need-blind admissions policy — in a move one school newspaper writer blasted as a pivot to “financially viable diversity” — it is expensive to admit lower-income minority students. In the wake of the court’s decision outlawing affirmative action, we won’t even have that. Financially viable admissions will be all that’s left.
Despite recent talk about affirmative action policies based on class rather than race, I am skeptical that would increase racial diversity. In states where race-conscious affirmative action had already been outlawed, wealth-based admissions policies have largely failed to stem the bleeding of minority students from prestigious institutions. There is no reason to suspect that they will suddenly begin succeeding.
That leaves racial gamification.
Writing college essays will descend further into a perverse, racialized version of the Keynesian beauty contest. Many minority applicants (and their parents and tutors) will be left to guess which racial or ethnic category or subcategory — or even which crass racial stereotype — will be most appealing to any given admissions officer or to the particular school they are applying to. Chief Justice John Roberts all but offered a road map to gamification in his majority opinion Thursday, writing, “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
In truth, this is already happening: As the sociologist Aya Waller-Bey wrote in a brilliant but depressing piece in The Atlantic, minority college applicants are keenly aware that they are more likely to be admitted if they cough up their darkest experiences. Meanwhile, many white or Asian or rich applicants will continue trying to appear less white or less Asian or less rich when they think it best suits their chances of winning admission to a fiercely picky elite campus.
Expect more antiracist action plans, more vaporous decolonization, more mandated training, more huckster consultants, more vacuous reports, more administrators whose jobs no one can explain, more sleazy land acknowledgments (“Sorry I stole your house!”), more performative white self-flagellation, more tokenization of minority faculty members.
And amid this great tornado of race chatter, if you take a moment to plug your ears and look around, you will probably begin to notice fewer and fewer brown and Black kids reading on the quad and, down the line, fewer and fewer brown and Black doctors in the maternity wards. It will turn out that all those initiatives will have next to nothing to do with actually combating structural racism. We may well find ourselves teaching Toni Morrison to rooms that get whiter and richer by the year.
So what is to be done? What actions should elite colleges and universities take next if they actually care about diversity?
First, they should exit the D.E.I.-industrial complex, which prioritizes the kind of cheap fixes, awareness raising and one-off speaker events that have been shown to bear little fruit. If you work at or attend these, any time people claim to be taking antiracist actions, demand that they explain — specifically — whom it is going to materially help and how it is going to materially help them. (Hint: If it doesn’t cost someone a significant amount of time or money, it is probably garbage.) If “success” is a change in the culture that you can’t quantify, document or meaningfully evaluate, then it is probably B.S. So ask for the receipts. Doing nothing is better than doing something if the something in question is P.R. skulduggery that provides cover for racist policies that keep campuses rich and white.
Second, elite colleges and universities should band together to strangle the parasitic U.S. News & World Report ranking system. The infamous college rankings, which have come under fire for years, rely on a series of metrics — like graduation rates — that effectively reward institutions for recruiting wealthier, whiter students and that falsely correlate excellence with endowment size. Because poor and minority students are more likely to quit college because of circumstances outside their control, institutions that apply policies targeting these groups for admission are likely to take a ranking hit. A few prestigious law schools have stopped participating in the ranking system, and Columbia University recently became the first Ivy League undergraduate institution to do so.
Exiting this system, which elite college and university presidents should collectively announce they are doing right now, will allow them to reimagine the admissions process without fear of penalty.
As for students? What advice would I give if I were tutoring again, sitting across from talented brown or Black kids worried that the Supreme Court has just made it easier to keep them out of the school of their dreams?
Remember that racial gamification is just that: a game. Ignore anyone who would have you believe that attending Ivy League universities — with their endowments as large as a reasonably sized country’s nominal G.D.P. — is the only path to happiness or success or racial equality. Civil rights leaders did not endure the dogs and the cold baptism of the fire hoses in the hopes that one day their children’s children could become Ivy-minted venture capitalists and management consultants. Remember that Martin Luther King Jr. did not dream of a multiracial oligarchy and that the “vaults of opportunity” of which he spoke are not hidden only behind a golden door at Yale University. There are other paths in life that do not require gaming anything. Remember that hope is wherever you find yourself.