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Affirmative Action under the Gun

A pillar of contemporary American race relations is hanging by a thread. With Justice Kagan recusing herself because of prior work as solicitor general, it seems almost inevitable that the Supreme Court will significantly reduce the role of race in university admissions this term. The Wall Street Journal:

Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the only one of the court’s five conservatives open to arguments for affirmative action, damped university administrators’ hopes of retaining largely unfettered discretion over race’s role in admissions. When UT’s lawyer, Gregory Garre, sought to explain an admissions formula the university says is a “holistic” review of myriad individual attributes, Justice Kennedy was skeptical.

At Via Meadia, we have been following the decay of what we think of as the racial Compromise of 1977. Between the effects of the recession, which has gutted the black middle class, and the long-term outlook for government employment, many of the middle class jobs made available to African Americans after the civil rights era are increasingly scarce.

Although racial discrimination has dramatically declined in the United States, and although very well-educated or affluent blacks live in something akin to a post-racial society, middle class and lower middle class blacks are looking at declining household net worth and eroding prospects. Low-income, inner-city blacks have it even worse.

At the same time, affirmative action programs that often benefit upper middle class and affluent blacks at the expense of Asians and others look harder to justify, and as immigration from Africa and the African diaspora in the western hemisphere continues to change the demographic nature of the African-American population in the United States, the place of race in American society is changing rapidly.

A court ruling that seriously restricts the role of race in university admissions will underline the degree to which, for the first time in a generation, America’s racial policies are in flux. In general, Via Meadia thinks the diversity bureaucracies in American higher ed waste time and money without producing a lot of social progress for anybody. And we think the biggest problem for African-American access to college lies in the weak performance of our K-12 school systems, combined with the problems that all poor people have financing college education in the face of the higher-ed bubble.

The judges are likely to clip the wings of affirmative action in college admissions, shifting from race to class based approaches. Match that with aggressive programs to make college cheaper by streamlining the process, improve K-12 by measures that include charter schools and vouchers for poor families, and it’s likely that access to higher ed for students from low income African American families will improve — despite the impact of the Supreme Court.

Via Meadia wishes that the GOP, instead of complaining that more African-Americans don’t vote for it, would put some time, intellectual power and political capital behind a serious effort to develop an integrated 21st century policy approach for the serious problems that African-Americans face. Democrats seem locked into old programs that don’t work well and are often more about patronage networks than about genuine progress; it would be nice to see some alternative strategies emerge.

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