One of the chief criticisms of affirmative action is that it devalues credentials that minorities could otherwise use to distinguish themselves. If college admissions were purely merit-based, employers would have no reason to discount an impressive degree just because it is held by a black or Hispanic applicant. Under our system of racial preferences, however, it is not merely understandable but rational to suspect that minority applicants are less qualified than their paper credentials imply. For some proponents of affirmative action, the response to this problem is simple — ban those rational thoughts! Everyone must act as if we have a purely merit-based admissions system, even though everyone knows that we do not. The success of affirmative action depends on it.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax refuses to go along with the charade, and now she’s in trouble for it. As part of a critique of race-based admissions, Professor Wax observed that black students at Penn Law “rarely” graduate in the top half of their class. Her observation is almost certainly correct, but Penn Law dean Ted Ruger declared it false without providing any evidence. (And he has access to the evidence, so his failure to reveal it is telling.) Worse, he forbade Professor Wax from teaching any mandatory first-year courses. His reasoning:
In light of Professor Wax’s statements, black students assigned to her class in their first week at Penn Law may reasonably wonder whether their professor has already come to a conclusion about their presence, performance, and potential for success in law school and thereafter. They may legitimately question whether the inaccurate and belittling statements she has made may adversely affect their learning environment and career prospects. These students may also reasonably feel an additional and unwarranted burden to perform well, so that their performance not be used or misused by their professor in public discourse about racial inequality in academic success. More broadly, this dynamic may negatively affect the classroom experience for all students regardless of race or background.
This is almost Orwellian in its blame-shifting. All of the problems listed by Dean Ruger are the direct result of Penn’s affirmative-action policies. Those policies generate a racial skills gap in Penn’s first-year law class, and Professor Wax has merely voiced what every rational observer already knows. Imagine an alternative ending to The Emperor’s New Clothes in which the truth-telling child is told to shut up, that the emperor’s clothes are beautiful, and that the only way his clothes may not be beautiful is if people keep mentioning he’s not wearing any.
As an aside, Amy Wax’s name has been in the news a lot lately. “In recent months, Wax seems to have turned her public statements about race and culture into something of a brand,” according to the Washington Post. That’s misleading. Professor Wax has been an outspoken conservative for years. Her book Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, which delved deeply into the issues she’s in trouble for now, was published in 2009. Her “brand” has surfaced because, for whatever reason, she is now in the crosshairs of campus activists who scour her public statements for anything that might spark controversy. Thank goodness for tenure.