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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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  • Anthony

    “Race is still an open wound in America” (Sigal Alon).

    • ronetc

      Perhaps so, Anthony, but why do the diversity officers at the universities and governmental agencies insist on ripping open the scars every day . . . other than that is how they “earn” their living. Since you like Greek, it’s kinda like Prometheus . . . just as the wound starts to heal, the carrion eaters start gnawing at it again.

      • Anthony

        Write to Sigal Alon. I posted her article.

        • ronetc

          I do not care what Sigal Alon thinks . . . but your thoughts are interesting, so I do respond to you.

          • Anthony

            Something to peruse and it’s tied to your question:

  • Jim__L

    I like that first step.

    Affirmative action based on socioeconomic status might be more helpful in making our elites more in touch with the rest of the population; although the very nature of “elite universities” has a tendency to instill a contempt for the non-“elite” and alienate students from a sense of social cohesiveness and belonging with the people they came from.

    If Elite universities are ivory towers of wisdom and truth (never mind the political indoctrination that stands in for wisdom these days) and the “flyover country” the students may have come from is a benighted wilderness of anti-intellectual bullies and “superstition”, best to just knock down the ivory towers and start again.

  • ronetc

    If it is true, as it seems to be in study after study, that the African-American IQ average is 85 while the white American average IQ is 100, how does and/or should that factor into college admission standards? This does not at all mean that many African-Americans are not very intelligent (especially, apparently, as the post says, “from families that recently immigrated to the United States”) or that many white people are not dumb as a box of rocks (no matter when their ancestors immigrated). But, then, say, if the average IQ for applicants at a selective college is 120, that would seem to mean on average that more white applicants as a percentage of the total population would be
    accepted than the population percentage of black applicants. And that any average white or black applicant with IQs of 100 and 85 respectively would both be in deep trouble trying to keep up with the 120 IQs of whatever race. And would it be wise for them to even try, instead of seeking out a school where they will be more academically fitted? If, as the post notes, “There has never been solid evidence that racial diversity improves educational outcomes in any measurable way,” what could possibly be the benefit of a “diversity” of intellects?

  • Rick Johnson

    What about white, fully able males who are being discriminated against today? When will they be able to claim reparations?

  • Fat_Man

    College admissions by random draw open to all high school graduates, would solve all of these problems.

    • ronetc

      But then Harvard would not be Hahvawd. Which is not necessarily a bad thing . . . and your proposal would also assist with the problem of “educational homogamy” addressed in a later post on the TAI site.

  • Pete

    “The “reparations” rationale is more straightforward, and, in the abstract, more morally compelling. ”

    Morally compelling. hogwash.

    The fact is blacks are damn lucky their ancestors were brought here as slaves.

    Tell us, Mead if you dare, how would the condition of blacks if they were left in Africa?

    • Anthony

      Well, Pete that’s one way of looking at it but the conditions of many would be different for the “accident” of birth (and many other random circumstances). Perhaps, WRM will take your dare but given … background probably not.

    • Tom

      Expecting people to be grateful that their ancestors were brought over to be unpaid labor is a bit much, I think.

      • Jim__L

        Not in the slightest. Muhammad Ali traveled to Africa for the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, part of which included a tour of the ports where slaves were loaded onto the ships.

        When he was asked what he thought of Africa, his response was “Thank God my great granddaddy got on that boat!”

        So, the question has indeed been asked, and answered.

  • Anthony

    Other perspectives vis-a-vis discussion:

  • BR

    Dr Mead, The recommendation at the last about convincing employers is quite contrary to philosophy and economics as you have been discussing.
    When students are educated in the hard sciences i.e. STEM fields, the prestige of the school they graduate from is less significant than the rigor and quality of their training. This is why legions of highly motivated and trained students from the best technical institutes in India and China, for example, come to the US and shine in the technology fields. Their education was certainly not at institutions comparable in resources, impact or prestige, in anyway equal to the American Ivy Leagues.

    Even within the Ivies, the STEM fields do not actually provide the ‘most bang for the buck’ as it were. It is only the highly qualitative, cultural and subjective fields like the ‘social sciences’ that the Ivies bolster students’ careers. This is most true of socialist or government areas like public policy and law.

    So, perhaps the best recommendation would be that the hold of the Ivies must be broken by trying to ‘marketize’ their products or reduce the value of the social science areas. In this case, Japan certainly shows one way – they have recently eliminated social sciences from their public universities as a field of study.

    If one were to concentrate on the STEM fields, employers will find that highly motivated students from lesser Universities are frequently better employees than the Ivies and this will automatically level the playing field, reducing the Ivy premium on education.

  • Beauceron

    They may be riddled with inconsistencies, but none of that matters. The point of AA is not fairness or justice, it’s power.
    And power doesn’t need to be founded on a consistent philosophy to survive and grow.

  • jeburke

    There is no question that affirmative action programs in college admissions, as with employment, were undertaken beginning in the late sixties as what was initially called “compensatory treatment” for Black Americans, long denied equal treatment. This straitforward justification was obscured long before the Bakke decision by colleges and employers who lumped Blacks together with Hispanics and, yes, Asians to tout their records of “minority” inclusion. And they still do. Crowing about 15% or 20% “minority” students continues to muddy the waters. While Hispanics or recently immigrated Arabs and others may be “people of color” and some may come from lower-income backgrounds, they have not, as a group or as individuals, suffered anything resembling a century of slavery and a century of both legally enforced segregation and broad social and economic discrimination. In the end, Blacks for whom there exists a compelling argument for compensatory treatment are losers, along with whites — both elbowed out by, among others, affluent students who can claim an Hispanic grandparent.

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