New and Improved (Well, Not Really) Justification for Affirmative Discrimination

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece by Prof. Elizabeth Anderson titled “Affirmative Action Is About Helping All of Us” (subscription only), in which she laments “the same tired arguments on the left” that are being used to defend affirmative action in higher education, and then proposes her own new and improved theory to be used in defending such discrimination from those attacks by “the right that reflect ignorance of the realities of race in America.”

Now, as I say in my post commenting on this piece, the first point to be made is the legal one: The Supreme Court has made it clear over the years that the use of racial and ethnic preferences is “presumptively illegal” and can be justified only by a “compelling interest.” Universities cannot as a legal matter simply make up a new, after-the-fact rationale once it becomes obvious that no one is really persuaded by the old ”educational benefits” of racial/ethnic “diversity” rationale. It is good that Professor Anderson recognizes the unpersuasiveness of the old rationale, and indeed the Supreme Court should not have bought it in its 2003 Grutter decision, but there is as of now no other rationale that the Court has made available to universities. 

And, in any event, how persuasive is Professor Anderson’s new rationale — that we need to use racial and ethnic discrimination (against, by the way, many minorities, such as Asians and Arab Americans, not to mention Jews) because this will “bring firsthand knowledge of racial conditions that is essential for elites to know”? It is extremely unpersuasive. Here are a few obvious problems with it: (1) In Professor Anderson’s eyes, the current system is badly broken — yet it has been using the preferences she likes, so why will continuing to use them make things any better? (2) The overwhelming majority (86 percent, according to The Shape of the River) of, for example, African Americans admitted to select schools come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, so how much “firsthand knowledge” will they bring? (3) The knowledge that Professor Anderson would like our elites to learn can be taught more directly than by hoping the information somehow is brought to them haphazardly through random conversations among 18-year-olds. (4) It is not as if, without racial and ethnic preferences, disadvantaged blacks and Latinos will be unable to attend college. Many will get in without preferences to the same schools, and the others will get into other schools, where their academic qualifications will be on par with their fellow students — a very good thing (see next paragraph). (5) Of course, many will dispute how “segregated” American society is, as well as how straight a line there is from the discrimination that Professor Anderson advocates to improving how well our “elites” will deal with it. That, too, makes the use of racial and ethnic preferences less “compelling.”

Finally, even if there is some minor benefit to be had from the discrimination that Professor Anderson advocates, it must be weighed against the costs of such discrimination:  It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.

Add up the costs and weigh them against Professor Anderson’s one dubious benefit.  The conclusion:  No fair-minded person can conclude that, in 2011, in an increasingly multiracial and multiethnic society — in which, indeed, individual Americans are increasingly multiethnic and multiracial – our institutions should be dividing Americans by skin color and what country their ancestors came from, using race and ethnicity as a proxy for what we can learn from one another.

P.S.  To the list of states at the beginning of her op-ed that have rejected racial admission preferences (California, Florida, Michigan, Washington, Arizona, and Nebraska) can be added two others that, for a period of time recently, did not engage in racial admissions discrimination at the top state schools (Texas and Georgia).  In light of this list, representing a big chunk of the U.S. population (about 37 percent), how plausible is it that the Supreme Court will now find that higher education demands the use of such discrimination?

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