AB ’07 has some questions:

Does affirmative action include Native Americans too?

Yes. Like affirmative action for African-Americans, there are generally two motivations. First (and illegal, at least in the context of Williams admissions) is to make up for past discrimination, both by society at large and by Williams in particular. (Note that Ephraim Williams probably killed his fair share of Native Americans, and Frenchmen too.) Second (and legal) is to improve the diversity of the student body at Williams and, thereby, the education provided to all students.

Of course, just because affirmative action, in general, does include Native Americans does not mean that the Williams admissions office shows favoritism. I would wager that it does.

If it does — why does it look like next year Williams will have only its first Native American student in 4 years? (please correct me if I am wrong) and if it doesn’t include Native Americans, why not?

I think that AB is wrong. The Provost office reports that there were 4 students on campus during 2003-2004 that were “American Indian or Alaskan Native”. This compares to 6 the prior year and 8 in 1998-1999.

There are a lot of things to keep in mind here. First, this does not prove that there were 4 Native Americans on campus. All we know is that there were 4 students that checked this box. Depending on one’s point of view, these Ephs might not be “real” Native Americans — or there might be many more who would qualify. The precise definition of “Native American” is, as one might expect, a matter of some dispute.

The trickiest issue concerns cultural, generally tribal, influences. There are millions of Americans (including my niece and nephew) with Native American “blood” — meaning the presence of Native Americans in their family tree. Most definitions of Native American require more than this. That is, you must be able to specify a specific tribe if you want any of the associated benefits, like an improvement in your chances at admission to Williams.

Note that this is related to the issue of who counts as black at places like Williams and Harvard.

The rapid progress of bioinformatics means that this whole topic will become much more interesting, and controversial, in the next few years. Although I am no expert, it seems clear that we will soon be able to determine the exact family tree for any individual. That is, the Williams Admissions Office won’t have to rely on someone truthfully checking boxes. Instead, a simple blood test will determine if an applicant has, say, at least 16 of 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents with the desired genetic characteristics.

Whether or not this will count as progress will depend on your point of view.

Over to you, Oren Cass!

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