A debate at Harvard about the efficacy and results of minority-recruitment programs is fascinating, if largely because it starts to illumine the conflict between trying to divide the world into groups and dealing with actual individuals.

In this case, there doesn’t seem to be a question that Harvard has succeeded in increasing the number of black students in the University. However, once you start subdividing the ethnicity they have used as a touchstone, some odd differences start to come to light: Students of recently-immigrated black families — Africans and West Indians, for example — make up the bulk of the increase. Descendents of African-American slaves — familes that have been in the US for more than three generations — have not been as successful.

This leads to an interesting couple of comments by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lani Guinier, but no one seems to bring up the problem, particularly among smaller groups, of how one achieves aims of ethnic and socioeconomic balance when the decisions are largely being made about and by individuals who each are going to be located in a fairly unique space, even if you just look at ethnicity, class, and gender. What is balance, and how do you measure it?

Courtesy of The New York Times (free registration required)