Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action is a Lost Cause

But there are better ways for progressives to advance racial justice

|

Diversity
Elim Photography / Foter / Creative Commons

Last week's Supreme Court ruling in the Michigan affirmative action case tried to strike a Solomonic middle ground, neither demanding nor forbidding states from using racial preferences in university admissions, while endorsing the right of each state's voters to decide such matters themselves.

In practice, however, the decision marks the beginning of the end of the era of affirmative action as we know it. Progressives would be foolish to resist this inevitable outcome. Instead, they should shift their fight to eradicating the remaining relics of white privilege that still distort the playing field against minorities.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the 6–2 plurality ruling (Elena Kagan was recused), wrote that the court cannot overturn Proposition 2 — Michigan's 2006 ban on racial preferences, which was backed by 58 percent of voters — anymore than it could ban Texas' use of preferences in Fisher vs. University of Texas last year. Kennedy reserved the right to remedy "invidious acts of discrimination." But other than that, it's up to the states. "The Constitution," Kennedy's liberal colleague Justice Breyer noted in his concurring opinion, "foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving the merits of these (affirmative action) programs."

On the surface, this ought to give both sides something to celebrate. The states that have banned racial preferences can keep their bans — and other states that don't want a ban won't be forced to impose one.

But this happy co-existence of diametrically opposed policies cannot last forever. Over the long run, "the ballot box" is not on the side of the proponents of racial preference. Public opinion is trending against them.

A Gallup poll last July found that 67 percent adults support race-neutral, merit-based admission standards, even if that means fewer minorities on campuses. Support for using "government in improving the social and economic position of minorities" had declined since 2004 among not just whites, but also blacks and Latinos. Likewise, an NBC-WSJ poll found that support for affirmative action was at a "historic low," dropping from 61 percent in 1991 to 45 percent last June. (The one exception is a recent Pew poll that found majority support for affirmative action.)

An unfavorable opinion trend is not the only problem for progressives on affirmative action. The support they enjoy is shallow as well. Americans no longer care about this issue as much as they used to. And to the extent that they do, it is to end racial preferences. This is why ballot initiatives to ban racial preferences have typically won and are likely to gain renewed traction after Tuesday's ruling. (The next battleground might be Ohio, according to Jennifer Gratz, who was one of the two plaintiffs in the twin 2003 lawsuits against University of Michigan's race-based policies.)

This shifting public opinion has implications beyond the ballot box.

So far, when states have banned racial preferences, universities have reinvented them under a race-neutral guise. Texas, for example, implemented the so-called 10 percent solution, in which it admits the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from all high schools, regardless of their caliber, effectively giving a leg up to inner-city minorities. U of M invented Descriptor Plus, a complicated algorithm that sorts out ZIP codes by socioeconomic, educational, and racial characteristics, and targets preferences where minorities reside.

But as Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent in the Michigan ruling, such efforts have failed to boost minority numbers to desirable levels. Getting them to work would require redoubled commitment.

This, however, is going to be difficult after several university presidents — such as U of M's 69-year-old Mary Sue Coleman, who authorized Descriptor Plus — retire. They grew up in the heyday of the civil rights era, when the country was consumed with issues of racial justice. Their successors, however, will come of age around the presidency of Barack Obama,  a fruit of that struggle. They might not share their predecessors' zeal for boosting diversity, especially since they'll confront a far more splintered minority community.

Asian-Americans, diversity's big losers, are turning against affirmative action. Last month, they stopped California Democrats, who hold a legislative supermajority, from reinstating racial preferences. Justice Sotomayor's plaintive diversity defense obviously wasn't written with their interest at heart.

What's more, all these trends — grassroots apathy, decline of a committed university vanguard, and minority opposition — will be gathering steam just around the 2028 expiration date for racial preferences that Justice Sandra Day O' Connor set in her 2003 Grutter vs. Bollinger ruling. Even a more liberal Supreme Court may not be able to extend such policies in these circumstances — which is why Justice Scalia's concurring opinion quipped that "Grutter's bell may soon toll."

So what should progressives do?

Go with the current rather than against it. Seek racial justice not by louder calls for minority preferences — but by scrapping systemic preferences enjoyed by the white majority.

Elite schools — both public and private — routinely hand preferences to athletes, children of faculty, celebrities, and politicians; "development cases" whose wealthy parents offer hefty donations; and, above all, offspring of alumni. Princeton sociologist Tom Espenshade found that nearly two thirds of all these non-race-based preferences at elite universities benefited whites in 1997, even though whites made up less than half of all applicants. In some Ivies, no more than 40 percent of seats are open to candidates competing on pure merit.

Liberals should argue that scrapping racial preferences while keeping all the other preferences produces a double injustice: It makes minority seats available to white candidates, but keeps white seats off-limits to minority candidates. This is a message that will unite minorities. Meanwhile, whites, who have largely been opposing affirmative action because it runs afoul of merit-based admissions, will be in no position to resist.

Liberals can salvage the defensible parts of their racial justice crusade by shifting tactics. Business as usual won't help minorities.

This column originally appeared in The Week.

NEXT: Andrew Napolitano on Reconciling Racially Hateful Speech With Freedom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This will effect America’s zeitgeist, particularly because it is getting so diverse and one simple narrative of the oppressor white class and the oppressed black class will no longer capture the realities of other minorities.

    What are those “realities” of other minorities?

    The zeitgeist is expanding the oppressed classes as fast as it can.

  2. “The Constitution,” Kennedy’s liberal colleague Justice Breyer noted in his concurring opinion, “foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving the merits of these (affirmative action) programs.”

    Oh fucking bullshit. The Constitution says “equal protection,” not “discriminate via the ballot box.”

    1. Oh fucking bullshit. The Constitution says “equal protection,” not “discriminate via the ballot box.”

      That’s funny, expecting a SCJ to know and understand the Constitution, and apply what it says.

      1. Oh, he knows and understands the Constitution, he just doesn’t like it.

      2. Then you’re painfully unaware of the recent history of the supreme court.

        He may understand it, but his mission in life is to invent asinine rationalizations for pretending that it says what the government wishes it said.

        -jcr

        1. I guess I should have put a /sarc tag on it.

  3. This will effect America’s zeitgeist…

    Affect.

    1. That Zeitgeist movie is a real chore to watch.

    2. affect(v)!! — thank you NEM!

    3. Ooops. Thanks for the catch.

      1. Effect and affect are the epitome of the ridiculousness of the English language.

        1. You must be one of those pro-Esperanto people.

  4. You know who else fought on for a lost cause?

    1. King Leonidas?

    2. Char Aznable?

    3. Whoever came out with “Duba, duba, duba, duba, Bee?”

      1. Proggies?

    4. Captain Malcolm Reynolds

  5. Instead, they should shift their fight to eradicating the remaining relics of white privilege that still distort the playing field against minorities.

    What on God’s green Gaia makes anyone believe that’s their aim? The goal is to maintain power, and maintaining power through class and racial warfare is the only way they know.

    1. I was just going to post this same quote, but talk about how maybe they should focus on culture, the government nanny state, housing projects and the war on drugs, since they are the real things that are holding down minorities.

  6. such efforts have failed to boost minority numbers to desirable levels. Getting them to work would require redoubled commitment.

    “SEE?! Those minority numbers are LAZY!”

  7. Ironic how those who defend policy premised on the notion that certain races are inferior and in need of special treatment do so by shouting “Racist” at anyone who doesn’t agree.

    1. Progressives know that the only way minorities can achieve anything is with the help of benevolent white people. And if you disagree you are racist.

      1. I’m sure right after the Affirmative Action bill was passed, all the legislators stood up and started to chant “White power! White power!”

        1. But LBJ is quoted as saying: “I’ll have those niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years” regarding the passing of his Great Society legislation.

          So…yes.

  8. Serious question: Do the proponents of AA give specific examples illustrating why minorities need this help? I often hear things like “hundreds of years of oppression” or “cultural differences” cited as reasons; but I have yet to hear anything like “How could you expect a Black teen to know about water pressure?” or “How could you expect a Hispanic youngster to know about English adverbs?”

    1. No.

      I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the guy I sat next to during my first year of law school was the son of a multimillionaire building contractor. He got in because he is Hispanic. His college grades and LSAT weren’t high enough to get in otherwise. I am the first person in my family to go to college. I got in via grades and LSAT. But he’s the underprivileged one.

    2. Racist!

      1. Racism is not dead.

        1. In lives on in the tolerance nazis.

  9. Liberals can salvage the defensible parts of their racial justice crusade

    What defensible parts? There are none, just as there is no such thing as “racial justice”. The term itself gives chills as it reminds one of the term in the original German. Similarly, there is no such thing as “[adj.] justice”. There is merely “justice”, a virtue that requires equality before the law and equality of opportunity. An equality that is established solely by placing a blindfold on Ms. Iustitia.

    1. What was the term in the original German?

    2. There are no defensible parts and indeed the only brand of justice in existence, is justice. Many things have the word “justice” appended to it to lend legitimacy, but none have it. You should be frightened when voters start calling for economic justice, or social justice or racial justice because you can be sure they want to commit injustice against you.

  10. Princeton sociologist Tom Espenshade found that nearly two thirds of all these non-race-based preferences at elite universities benefited whites in 1997, even though whites made up less than half of all applicants.

    Is there any reason why this would be so?

    In some Ivies, no more than 40 percent of seats are open to candidates competing on pure merit.

    Which of those ivies are state-run schools?

    1. Wealthy nonwhites don’t have money, or children they want to get into their alma mater.

    2. As far as I know, Cornell is the only state-run ivy.

    3. I have never seen the 40% pure merit statistic before and i am surprised by it – anybody see a footnote anywhere?

  11. “Elite schools ? both public and private ? routinely hand preferences to athletes, children of faculty, celebrities, and politicians; “development cases” whose wealthy parents offer hefty donations; and, above all, offspring of alumni.”

    Shocking! Preferences for athletes could only benefit Biff and Muffy with their golf and polo scholarships, how could nonwhites benefit?*

    And to paraphrase WF Buckley, I love the way alumni are expected to give a preference to their alma mater in making donations, but it’s evil if the alma mater reciprocates by giving preference to alumni families.

    *Though I think athletic scholarships should be modified so that you do your turn as an athlete first, as an employee, and then get offered free attendance at the college.

  12. the notion of “white privilege” is made up Marxist bullshit used to justify racial discrimination euphemistically known as affirmative action. like “structural” or “institutional racism” white privilege is the fallback claim used when no evidence of actual racism exists. don’t worry about it. like all fairy tales, it doesn’t really exist.

    1. Yea I’m surprised Shikha used that term. It’s a bullshit excuse for unjustified contempt people have for a demographic based on conveniently impossible to quantify factors.

  13. So far, when states have banned racial preferences, universities have reinvented them under a race-neutral guise. Texas, for example, implemented the so-called 10 percent solution, in which it admits the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from all high schools, regardless of their caliber, effectively giving a leg up to inner-city minorities.

    Don’t know that that is actually a racial preference. I’m gonna guess that the top 10% of any high school graduating class are going to be:

    1) really bright kids

    2) not necessarily racially proportionate to the whole student body.

    You have a school that has 70% black, 20% latino, and 10% asian kids, that top 10% might be heavily latino and asian because their parents insisted that they buckle down and do their schoolwork, with just a handful of black kids whose parents also insisted they get good grades.

  14. Serious question: Do the proponents of AA give specific examples illustrating why minorities need this help?

    I don’t think they CAN, unless they come up with bullshit reasons.

    The private math tutoring school I currently teach at here in Texas has mostly really bright East Indian and Asian and Latino kids who weren’t doing well in public schools, with parents who have high expectations. One of the East Indian kids came in a few months ago a grade level behind, and now he’s tackling math subjects two grade levels ahead.

    The problem isn’t the kids, the problem is the fucking government schools.

  15. “”does this mean that progressives should abandon the cause of racial justice as an excuse to grab power in any and every publically funded institution in our country?

    If it works, it works.

  16. One of the great tragic ironies of the current system is the minority kid, coming out of an horrendous public school getting ushered into a school like Rice or MIT with absolutely no chance of graduating. However the tens of thousands of dollars in student loan will haunt him the rest of his life. But we sure offset centuries of prejudice, didn’t we?

    1. Read Thomas Sowell do we?

  17. The fact that these laws now hurt Asians the most is a sign that this is not a corrective for past racism, but just a never ending policy.

    Different ethnic groups excel disproportionately at different things. So what? There is no moral imperative in that situation. Let individuals do what they want and if it falls into to a disproportionate pattern, whether due to cultural background or just plain coincidence, leave it alone. Only on on extremely rare occasion is unfair discrimination real. Liberals expect to flip a coin one hundred times and get fifty heads and fifty tails.

  18. testing

  19. Elite schools ? both public and private ? routinely hand preferences to athletes?

    I’ve never seen the connection between athletics and scholarship, so it might be good for scholarship if less money to be funneled to athletics. Of course, a substantial percentage of college scholarships awarded to minorities are for putting a round ball through a metal ring, or moving an oblate spheroid across a line, so the recruitment of Neanderthals who cannot write a coherent paragraph would suffer.

    Years back I recall cries of “racism” surrounding the NCAA tightening scholarship requirements to require a 700 SAT and a ‘C’ average in selected core classes. The previous standard was one or the other. IIRC, the lowest possible SAT score was 400.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.