Bench Memos

“Affirmative Action” and “Diversity”

It was during freshman week in college, I believe, that I endured a longwinded speech by Harvard president Derek Bok on the wondrous virtues of diversity. “He keeps talking about ‘diversity,’ but he never explains what he means by the term,” I complained.

More than 35 years later, not much has changed. As Yale law professor Peter Schuck observes in an excellent essay for National Affairs (the outstanding quarterly journal founded and edited by my EPPC colleague Yuval Levin), “few discussions of diversity and the diversity rationale for affirmative action even address what diversity actually means, much less explain which groups and which kinds of attributes create diversity value.” In twenty crisp pages, Schuck explores the evasions and contradictions that plague defenses of so-called “affirmative action.” 

Schuck laments that the Supreme Court seems not to have learned the lesson that “universities that are keen to implement race-based affirmative action … will figure out a way to do so unless the Court emphatically and clearly prohibits it.” As Schuck points out—and as this City Journal review, by Mark Pulliam, of Tim Groseclose’s Cheating: An Insider’s Report on the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA discusses more fully—even when state law does clearly bar racial preferences, universities will resort to subterfuges to evade the law.

Schuck concludes:

The public opposition to race-based affirmative-action programs on campus is amply justified. Affirmative action defies — indeed flouts — equal protection and other liberal values. It rests upon a diversity rationale that is theoretically incoherent and in fact produces little if any of the diversity value that alone might justify it (and then only under a dubious rationale). It cannot satisfy the constitutional tests that the Court has laid down and reaffirmed as recently as last year. It has failed to increase its political support in the nation after four decades of energetic advocacy. It fosters corrosive racial stereotypes, poisons race relations, and encourages opacity, dissimulation, and even evasion by its administrators and advocates.

And if that were not enough, affirmative action seems to grievously harm many of its supposed beneficiaries — not to mention the non-preferred groups who are disadvantaged by the practice.

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