The Corner


Affirmative Action for States?

A liberal friend recently asked me this:

The conservative argument in favor of the Electoral College boils down to an endorsement of diversity: ‘In choosing a president, we need to take a wide variety of viewpoints into account instead of letting raw numbers control the process.’ That’s an admirable sentiment, but why do you oppose the same principle in college admissions? If it’s okay for the University of California to be half Asian, if that’s what the test scores dictate, why is it not okay for the largest states to dominate in electing a president, if that’s what the popular vote dictates?

In response, I said what I usually say in such situations: “That’s a good question . . . Oh, look at the time, gotta run.” In the end, though, as always, it boils down to that pesky Constitution. Mediating relations between the states is what the Constitution is all about; it’s why we have a constitution in the first place. As a political scientist would put it, states are the unit of analysis. In contrast, the Constitution in its current form explicitly rules out race as a unit of analysis, and this laudable principle has been reinforced with decades of civil-rights legislation.

The power struggle among the states and the fight to end privileges based on race are perhaps the two most persistent themes running through American history; the most traumatic event that ever befell our nation involved both. That’s why the conservatives I know accept giving preference in college admissions based on residence, class rank, family income, sports or musical ability, and many other factors — but not race, because it’s illegal, it’s unfair, and it has pernicious effects. States have rights and so do individuals, but races do not. “Affirmative action” for states is exactly what the Constitution is for; racial preferences are exactly what the Constitution is against.


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