Phi Beta Cons

Continued Exchange at Inside Higher Ed

From Jay Rosner (Executive Director of the Princeton Review Foundation):

While affirmative action is a less-than-perfect method to fairly take race into account, opponents of affirmative action need to convince those of us with eyes and ears why race doesn’t matter in the US today. Not why race shouldn’t matter — most folks agree with that. Why race doesn’t matter. And please, try to do better than Ward Connerly’s lame assertion that Obama’s election resolves this issue once and for all.

My reply:

Yes, giving preferential treatment on the basis of skin color and what country your ancestors came from is “less-than-perfect,” all right. Do you really think that, in an increasingly multiethnic and multiracial society — and where individuals are increasingly multiethnic and multiracial — we can long tolerate a legal regime that does that?

Your straw man to the contrary notwithstanding, no one believes that racial discrimination has vanished, that race does not matter. But there are better ways to fight it than giving preferential treatment to individuals who are more privileged than those being discriminating against (as President-elect Obama acknowledged), and it is not so systemic that it justifies institutionalized discrimination in the other direction. The playing field is not level, but there are plenty of folks of all colors at both ends. Enforce the civil rights laws; provide scholarship and other aid for those of all colors.  

As a lawyer, I have to point out that your argument is based on the “societal discrimination” rationale — a justification that the Supreme Court (including Justice O’Connor) has long rejected. So even if there were something to it as a policy matter, it is unavailable as a justification to schools that believe in following the law.

Finally, even if there are some dubious benefits to the use of racial preferences, they are overwhelmed by the costs: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.


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