Last night the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a debate at the Library of Congress on affirmative action between John McWhorter and Dalton Conley (arguing it ought to be replaced with socioeconomic preferences) and Lee Bollinger and Julian Bond (defending the status quo of racial preferences). According to this news story from Diverse Issues in Higher Education:
“Affirmative action resulted from an American consensus,” Bond said, as “a remedy for past racial injustices. Changes in our society, not least in the election of our first African-American president, do not signal a change in our racial temperature so significant that race-conscious affirmative action can now be discarded.”
Now, this argument is extremely common. In fact, whenever I debate this topic (which is frequent), I almost always hear it, no matter how sophisticated the opponent I’m opposing, and those Americans who favor racial preferences I’m sure are persuaded primarily by it, too. No one, in other words, really believes the “diversity helps us learn better” nonsense.
But there is a problem with the “remedy for past injustices”/societal-discrimination argument (actually, a number of problems, but I just want to focus on the most obvious): The Supreme Court long ago rejected it! So there you go: Those defending affirmative action either use arguments they don’t really believe, or arguments that are legally nonstarters. (President Obama, by the way, in his occasional and half-hearted defenses of racial preferences, also uses the societal-discrimination argument. That’s right: Our brilliant president, former editor of the Harvard Law Review and lecturer at the University of Chicago, does not know what the law is regarding affirmative action. Good thing he found other work.)