Phi Beta Cons

Positions Harden on Race Relations

As usual, Charles Murray is provocative. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Trump’s America,” he says that Trump’s popularity reflects the disaffection of the working class and the decline of American values. Among other things (and I recommend reading the article) he says that the civil rights and the feminist movements were “classic invocations” of individualism and liberty; but they went too far, to the point where they began to destroy individualism and liberty. Civil rights led to affirmative action, which led to “group-based politics.” Similarly, equal rights of women under the law morphed to “equality of outcomes” (i.e., equality of pay). The elites love to promote these goals, while working people, who need traditional American values to move forward,  suffer. Thus the Trump phenomenon.

The group-based movements are perhaps strongest on college campuses. (As far as I know, affirmative action is a policy for businesses, but I don’t see protests in front of banks and commercial offices.)

On campus, there are constant conflicts over racially and ethnically-based hiring, tenure, student admissions—you name it. Similar conflicts take place over the treatment of women in hiring, tenure, sexual harassment policies, and Title IX sports issues. Court cases are underway on most of these topics, the most famous of which is the renewed Fisher case, about which Phi Beta Cons has written a lot.

But Murray’s article led me to wonder if those of us who oppose race-based admissions and sexual harassment policies that allow women’s accusations to overturn due process are perhaps contributing to the problem. While we seek to bring back individualism and liberty, are we hardening the positions of those who want group-based rights or to favor some groups over others? Perhaps we are fueling the fires of dissension but not moving toward a goal.

About a decade ago the Pope Center held a conference on diversity in which some speakers opposed affirmative action on the grounds that it violated American principles of equal treatment. But Raymond Pierce, then dean of North Carolina Central Law School, expressed surprise at the idea that people are still opposed to racial preferences in colleges. He said that it was a non-issue and there were much more serious issues at hand; his top one was the high cost of a legal education.

Interestingly, Dean Pierce headed a historically black school that has a substantial white population, making it highly diverse by today’s standards of diversity. NC Central is also considered one of the best values in law school in the nation because of its relatively low cost.

While I admire those who fight against affirmative action and want to eliminate race as a factor in admissions, the fight is extremely long and difficult. Perhaps there is something of value to learn from Dean Pierce’s insouciant dismissal.

Can such a bitter contest ever end? Even when the forces of individuality win battles, new techniques such as the “top 10 percent” rule in Texas—subterfuges one could say—pop up to achieve racially preferential goals. And even if the end of affirmative action did arrive, it would do only a little for Asian students who are being discriminated against—auguring another long war.

What I worry about is that everyone has had to take sides on these issues. I wonder, just wonder, if another road might have been taken.

What if schools that didn’t use affirmative action had shown that avoiding mismatch benefited minority students? (HBCUs might have been valuable here, but they are mired in financial problems, partly because they have lost good students to others’ affirmative action.) What if scholars such as Richard Sander and Russell Nieli had showed the harm of racial preferences but had done so outside the context of a battle over affirmative action? Might their findings have won over more people, especially in the academy, and led to a more peaceful change of attitudes?

Or is that whimsy?

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...


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