The difference between the ‘I, too, Am Oxford’ and ‘I, too, Am Havard’ campaigns

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It was asked in a recent article for the Oxford Student “is the issue of race as prominent in the UK as it is in America?” to which it concluded that “British intolerance towards racism is light-years ahead of that in America”. In truth, the “I, Too, Am Harvard” and “I, Too, Am Oxford” campaigns demonstrate an almost diametric approach to the issue of race.”

The “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign started as a response to an article called “Affirmative Dissatisfaction” which was highly critical of the University’s attempts to favour applications from those students from ethnic minority backgrounds, a technique traditionally known as “positive discrimination” in the UK. It was therefore, as much about entry (for which the University could be held responsible) as student experiences.

Therefore it is unsurprising that charged with an implicit accusation by the Campaign that the University was doing too little to support African-American students, a spokesman responded by stating that “Harvard is a strong supporter of a holistic admissions process designed to create a highly talented and diverse student body. The University re-affirmed that position in 2012 when [argued] on behalf of race-conscious admissions policies in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.”

This side of the Atlantic, things are very different. The University of Oxford has made a commitment to “seek to attract applicants of the highest quality and potential, regardless of background. Decisions on the admission of students will be based solely on the individual merits of each candidate…” The idea of an admissions policy that actively favoured any ethnic minority group would be completely at odds with this. It differs slightly from other UK universities in this respect, although none follow the example set by Harvard nearly as strongly.

Therefore at Harvard your race is an important factor in your admission, but in Oxford – at least in principle – it is completely disregarded.

The idea of affirmative action is two-fold: to correct historic prejudice, and to correct for prejudice elsewhere in the system – the idea that students from ethnic minority backgrounds are already disadvantaged (regardless of merit) by the time they come to apply for University. It is a blunt instrument, because, as long as it maintains so strong a distinction based on race, it is impossible to realise Martin Luther King’s famous dream: that his “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

In the American context, one could point quite correctly to factors nevertheless mitigating in favour of affirmative action, at least for the foreseeable future; to accept that affirmative action is a necessary evil. But it poses a big question for the “I, Too, am Oxford” – whether a major departure from the University’s current racial equity is warranted.

Having read some of the thoughts of volunteers behind “I, Too, am Oxford” it is far from clear they align with “I, Too, Am Harvard” in this respect – although, not being among them, I am wary of ascribing to them all one particular view on this crucial issue. They note, for example, that “students in their daily encounters in Oxford are made to feel different and othered from the Oxford community” – for which equal treatment would suffice. Reading the Tumblr page it is difficult not to get the impression that Oxford’s students want merely to be judged for who they are and have their race disregarded.

In doing so, they send a powerful message to their fellow University members, but one that differs substantially from the “I, Too, am Harvard” Campaign which they took as their inspiration.

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