The Corner

Re: Racial Preferences

Ramesh – But your position is also that universities should be free not to use racial or gender preferences as well, right? Or to use any kind it wants, right? In other words if a school wants to be all white or all Asian or all black or all male, that doesn’t “bother” you either, correct? I put the quotation marks around bother because I think you might oppose such policies personally, but wouldn’t want to see them codified into law.

I think Ross Douthat’s point is a good one, as far as it goes. He writes:

POINTLESS PREFERENCES: So the affirmative-action-at-elite-schools debate is a “sideshow,” because it has no serious impact on how race, and more importantly class, are lived in America. This suggests, first of all, that liberals should stop racing to the barricades every time somebody hints that racial preferences might not be a good idea — at least if they really want to reduce racial inequality, rather than just feel good about how diverse the Brown student body looks in its Yearbook photo shoots. But it also suggests that there might be more profitable ways for the Right to spend its time than railing against the injustice of Stanford Law daring to pick a black kid with a 3.6 GPA instead of a white kid with a 3.8. Sure, it’s unjust . . . but it’s also not that important. And pointing out how unimportant it is, and how ineffective such programs are, might be a better way to the hearts and minds of minority voters than just repeating the “color-blind society” mantra and waiting for Sandra Day O’Connor to retire.

Again, that’s all fair enough. And maybe the right should point out affirmative action’s ineffectiveness more. Though I suspect that would result in the left saying “try harder!” However, I still think both Ross and Reihan are minimizing the larger role these decisions have in a society like ours. For example, admission to an elite school — particularly for those kids who are dying to go to elite schools (and their parents) — is seen as a golden ticket to a golden life (everyone get the Willy Wonka song stuck in your heads: “I’ve got a golden ticket…”). They don’t think it is a lottery ticket because they’ve self-geeked themselves for much of their high school career to earn that ticket. When the moment comes, they find out that kids who may not have worked as hard and who did less well gets his ticket because they’re black or Hmong or, because, he’s white. That strikes me as a fairly powerful teaching moment.

(Note: I am not persuaded that only very well-qualified blacks are being chosen at elite universities. And, since this system works its way down past the mid-list schools, the dynamic is nearly universal)

Moreover, the students who make it in to these schools, black and white, may be a minority but they are the minority we call “the elite” in this country by and large (indeed, elites by definition, are always minorities). They bring the diversity-mongering ethos with them everywhere. And, as Reihan noted, this elite is disproportionately represented in “the upper echelons of journalism, academia, appellate law, and possibly medicine.” I might throw in engineering and several other sciences, but the point remains that these groups have great influence and impact beyond the fairly sterile subject of incomes.

We are building a culture as much as an economy, and I think the former is at least as important as the latter. Healthy cultures can survive bad economies better than healthy economies can survive bad cultures. The racial spoils system — at the center of which are today’s universities — is, I believe, bad for the culture. It breeds resentment and condescension. It rewards the wrong values and punishes the right ones. I’m as willing to tolerate a little injustice for the greater good as the next guy. But usually these sorts of injustices are invisible and therefore accepted as “the way things are.” When they emerge from the hidden law and are exposed as injustices, and celebrated as injustices, the injustice is no longer small it is systemic.

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