“Programmer Privilege”

Philip Guo (Slate) argues that his being an Asian young man led him to “fit society’s image of a young programmer,” and therefore got him cut various kinds of slack while he was a beginner and not very good. Maybe that’s right; I’m sure people do view others through these sorts of stereotypes to some extent, and that can sometimes be helpful and sometimes be harmful. But his first item on the list of what people never said to him seems not connected to the cause:

As an Asian male student at MIT, I fit society’s image of a young programmer. Thus, throughout college, nobody ever said to me (as they said to some other CS students I knew):

  • “Well, you only got into MIT because you’re an Asian boy.”

I would think that people didn’t say that isn’t because he “fit society’s image of a young programmer” — it’s because no-one thinks that MIT gives a preference to Asians. But many universities, including MIT, have preferences for black and Hispanic students. I recall attending a debate at UCLA Law School when I was a student (around 1990) at which the professor supporting race-based preferences said that, in the absence of such programs, there would be virtually no blacks at the institution. Other defenders of race-based preferences say similar things (see, e.g., here).

You might think that, on balance, race-based preferences are a good idea. But it’s hard to deny that, when the preferences exist — and when they’re so substantial that they mean that a large part, maybe over half, of the students of a particular group will be let in even though they’re below the bar for other groups — people will suspect that you got into a school because you’re a member of that group. That’s not because of “society’s image of a young programmer”; it’s because of the preference programs that many institutions proudly trumpet.