YPU Debates Affirmative Action

Finnegan Schick and Monica Wang, Yale News, November 11, 2015

The Yale Political Union held a debate Tuesday night on the topic of affirmative action, amidst ongoing campus discussions about race and the status of students of color on campus.

Amy Wax ’75, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose work addresses issues of social welfare law and policy, spoke against affirmative action on the grounds that it ultimately disadvantages the underrepresented minorities it was originally designed to help. Although YPU members and Yale administrators expected students to protest the debate, Wax’s speech proceeded uninterrupted before the crowd of roughly 200 students. The debate came several days after student activists rallied outside a free speech conference held by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program in protest of a speaker’s joke about the genocide of Native Americans.

Students said they had heard that before the debate began, Afro-American Cultural Center Director Rise Nelson Burrow had asked students to boycott the debate, rather than protest it, in order to avoid fueling criticisms that student activists are infringing upon others’ free speech.

Still, before Wax delivered her speech, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway spoke before the YPU, asking members to respect freedom of expression at Yale.

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The chairs of two of the YPU’s left-leaning parties also spoke before Wax’s speech, stating that they wished the debate had been postponed out of sensitivity to students who felt shaken by the past week’s protests and discussions about race. The YPU’s guest speakers for the fall semester were invited last spring; Wax was not invited in response to ongoing campus conversations about race at Yale.

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The debate proceeded as planned. During her speech, Wax cited several statistics about the academic performance of underrepresented minorities like African-Americans who are accepted to colleges and universities as part of affirmative action. She criticized affirmative action as an ineffective method for promoting equality and called it detrimental to the institutions and people who are touched by it.

Wax argued that discrepancies between racial groups should be amended during early childhood, not when students are applying to college. Too many resources are being put toward affirmative action in a “diversity machine” that seeks diversity for its own sake, and not enough energy is going into improving the quality of early education, Wax argued.

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During Wax’s speech, about a dozen members of the YPU, including the two who had asked to postpone the debate and members of the political left, rose and walked to the back of the room, where they turned their backs on Wax and raised their fists in the air. [Editor’s Note: There is a photo of them at the original article link below.] Several students cried during her speech.

Typically, during YPU debates, after the guest speaker has finished, students deliver speeches for and against the guest’s argument. But students from several parties–including some who agreed with Wax’s arguments–instead used their time to further criticize the YPU for not respecting the voices of students who might find it difficult to participate in the debate due to its subject matter.

Brittany Smith ’18, a black member of the Conservative Party, said she mostly agreed with Wax’s arguments that affirmative action tends to reinforce negative stereotypes and create new ones. With socioeconomic diversity also comes academic divergences, she said–and for one, she personally feels academically unprepared to be at Yale.

Still, she said, the debate came at an “inopportune time due to the general campus climate.”

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