Higher Education Watch
The Affirmative Action Double-Bind

When the Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case that could decide the fate of affirmative action in college admissions, there was an elephant in the (court)room. Since the 1978 decision Bakke vs. the University of California, the only legal justification for race-conscious admissions programs has been that a “diverse student body” supposedly enhances the educational experience. The more straightforward idea of affirmative action as a type of reparation program for past wrongs committed against minorities in the United States does not (formally) carry any legal weight under the Supreme Court’s precedents, so the justices and attorneys barely touched it.

In an interesting piece for the Nation, Sigal Alon argues that this framing of affirmative action could be its downfall. “Once race-conscious admissions stopped being about equity and reparation, the only argument for it was the enrichment of white students,” she writes. “That was never going to hold up.” More:

In the late 1960s, towards the end of the civil-rights era, most leading colleges and professional schools started to give black students special consideration in admissions. The obvious rationale behind affirmative-action programs was reparation for past societal discrimination and the legacy of slavery. In essence, affirmative action is a type of redistribution policy. In the case of black people in America, it can be viewed as a tool to rectify the egregious wrongs that were perpetuated in the past, including generations of slavery, discrimination, degradation, and limited opportunity. Its role was to facilitate the social and economic mobility of people of color and women and to level the playing field between blacks and whites […]

The Bakke ruling shifted the rationale for affirmative action from reparation for past discrimination to promoting diversity. This, in essence, made the discourse about affirmative action race-neutral, in that it now ignores one of the key reasons for why we need to give an edge to minorities.

Alon is clearly on to something here. There has never been solid evidence that racial diversity improves educational outcomes in any measurable way. Even if there were, the fact that college campuses only seem to value racial and ethnic diversity while neglecting or even discouraging diversity of thought calls the whole line of argument into question. Moreover, the campus diversity bureaucracies have so discredited themselves over the last generation with their adherence to extreme identity politics that many observers wonder if they are up to the task of administering a diversity policy well.

The “reparations” rationale is more straightforward, and, in the abstract, more morally compelling. America has perpetrated grave crimes against its black population for centuries; who could oppose putting a finger on the scale in the opposite direction? But this rationale, too, is riddled with inconsistencies, which Alon does not acknowledge. First, if the rationale is really “reparations”—that is, if universities should give preferences to people who are members of racial groups that were discriminated against in the United States—then shouldn’t Chinese Americans (who were subject to Jim-Crow style persecution on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and Japanese Americans (who were forcibly interned during the Second World War) also get an admissions boost? If anything, the evidence suggests that these groups face a steep admissions penalty under race-conscious admissions policies. To be sure, neither group experienced violence and subjugation rivaling the historical experience of American blacks—but it did rival, in many cases, the experience of Hispanics, who are favored by affirmative action policies.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear that race-based affirmative action is all that successful at achieving the “reparations” objective. Richard Kahlenberg has argued that such policies overwhelmingly help wealthy African Americans, rather than poor ones, and one study found that African American students at elite universities overwhelmingly come from families that recently immigrated to the United States, rather than families that bore the brunt of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow.

So maybe the problem with race-based affirmative action isn’t just, as Alon suggests, that it’s been couched in shallow “diversity” rhetoric. Affirmative action is caught in a type of double-bind, with both of the major arguments that might support it suffering from serious, if not fatal, flaws. We aren’t legal experts at Via Meadia, so we don’t have a strong opinion as to how the Supreme Court should decide the case it heard last week. But race-based affirmative action is morally questionable and politically tenuous. Our society should start thinking about creative ways to move past it while still righting the injustices that these programs, at their best, were designed to address.

One possible first step: Lower the stakes in the affirmative action debate by convincing employers to give less weight to where students went to college and more to what they know; break the Ivy League monopoly on elite jobs and give everyone a chance to succeed.

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