Friday, October 26, 2018

"Sparse country" at Harvard as derision of rurality and conflation with whiteness

Prof. Jeannie Suk Gersen writes in the New Yorker this week under the headline, "At Trial, Harvard's Asian Problem and a Preference for White Students from Sparse Country."  She is writing about the same landmark affirmative action case I wrote about a few days ago here.  And, as I predicted in that post would soon happen among commentators, Professor Gersen conflates rurality with whiteness.

Prof. Gersen, of Harvard Law, repeatedly uses the phrase "Sparse Country," capitalized even (perhaps for emphasis?  Is there a whiff of disdain--or more than whiff--here?) to refer to the 20 states from which Harvard makes a particular effort to recruit students.  (I want to know what 20 states constitute "sparse country" but Gersen does not list them; elsewhere the New York Times listed a few of them, including Montana and Alabama).
In his testimony, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, who has worked in the admissions office since before Bakke, reminisced about his Harvard roommate in the nineteen-sixties, who was “a great ambassador” for South Dakota. He also testified about the letters Harvard sends to high-school students in Sparse Country who have P.S.A.T. scores of at least 1310, encouraging them to apply. The only Sparse Country students with such scores who do not get the letter are Asians; to receive it, an Asian male must score at least 1380. An attorney for the plaintiff asked why a white boy in, say, immigrant-rich Las Vegas with a score of 1310 would get the letter, while his Asian classmate with a 1370 would not. Fitzsimmons responded with generalities about the need to recruit from a broad array of states to achieve diversity.
The quotation marks around "great ambassador" suggest to me Gersen's derision of the rural experience and the notion that kids from rural places might have anything to teach urban kids, who are no doubt the Harvard student body default. 
When asked whether Harvard “put a thumb on the scale for white students” from Sparse Country, Fitzsimmons contrasted students who “have only lived in the Sparse Country state for a year or two” with those who “have lived there for their entire lives under very different settings.” Perhaps he meant that whites are more likely to be “farm boys” or “great ambassadors,” like his South Dakotan roommate. Or perhaps he meant that Asians are more likely than whites to apply to Harvard, less likely to be accepted, and more likely to enroll if accepted, so Harvard saves itself postage costs by reducing its recruiting of Asians. But the exchange highlighted a key question of the trial: whether the Harvard admissions process treats white racial identity as an asset, relative to Asian identity (or treats Asian identity as a drawback, relative to white identity).
This explanation of Harvard's desire to attract students from "Sparse Country" suggests another meaning of the phrase--that the sparseness refers to the dearth of applicants from these places, not necessarily to the low density of the population.

As for Prof. Gersen's conflation of whiteness with rurality, it is arguably supported by Fitzsimmons' distinction between students who have not been in Sparse Country for very long and those who have been there all their lives.  That is, immigrants are moving into "Sparse Country" (as I have written about here and my colleague Michele Statz has written about here), and I would hope that Harvard would not devalue those immigrants simply because they have not lived in rural America for very long.  Indeed, those immigrants are probably valued by Harvard because they represent racial and ethnic groups generally underrepresented at Harvard--regardless of whether they are admitted to Harvard from rural or urban places.

One issue that is not explicit in Prof. Gersen's musings is the distinction between "Sparse Country" as rural and "Sparse Country" as urban.  This gets at the issue of scale:  Is the scale of the "state" helpful if we want rural voices at Harvard and similarly situated institutions?   I have often argued (in conversation, though perhaps not explicitly in my publications) that admitting the children of doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers and such from Billings or Missoula or Bozeman Montana (or, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque or even Rapid City or Sioux City) is really nothing like admitting the real "farm boy"--or, more importantly, farm girl--from one of these states.  So if Harvard sees "Sparse Country" as 20 states, it's missing out on the complexity of the dramatic variations within those states.

The best seller Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, helps to make my point.  Tara was raised by fundamentalist Latter Day Saint parents in southern Idaho--which is NOTHING like being raised by wealthy retirees in, say, Sun Valley, or even as the daughter of physicians in Boise.  Do we really want to look at issues like diversity of lived experience at the level of the state?  Or do we need to look to a lower scale to achieve more authentic diversity?  Doesn't the phenomenally successful Educated help us to see that distinction quite clearly?

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

1 comment:

Orchid64 said...

This whole argument smacks of minorities wanting to have it both ways. They want equal representation relative to their occurrence in the population when they are underrepresented, but they want to be considered based on merit when they are already equally represented or overrepresented already. At what point are white folks given equal consideration in this respect? Also, why should being an ethnic minority and suffering the disadvantages of systemic discrimination be regarded as a greater disadvantage than other markers of disadvantage such as poverty and geographic disadvantages?

We've gone beyond the point where whiteness should be the only metric that is considered in such discussions. It is, surely, a huge advantage (along with being male), but it's not the only marker of privilege. It's the biggest one, but you're better off being an affluent, urban Asian female than a poor, rural, white male in terms of your ability to succeed in America.