Affirmative Action, But Why?

I am a supporter of affirmative action. The Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the State of California v. Bakke properly held that racial diversity was a compelling interest that could be taken into account in college admissions. This was reiterated in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas II.

It’s certainly true that it means someone wins and someone loses, based on race, which understandably seems to offend Equal Protection. After all, if we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of race, then we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of race. Not against blacks. Not against whites. Not against anyone.

But there are greater variables involved below the surface of the tautology, where race is a proxy for diverse ideas and experiences that contribute to breadth of thought and understanding in higher education. You may not agree, and you’re allowed. The idea that a more diverse student body brings more diverse ideas to the mix and expands the minds and understanding of all students works for me.

New York Times reporter Charlie Savage “exposed” a leaked internal Department of Justice memo that the Office of Civil Rights would shift its attention toward eliminating racial discrimination in college admissions, the lede was that it was about reverse discrimination.

The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.

Nowhere did the document say anything about white applications. That was a facile assumption on Savage’s part, reflecting what he read into the memo rather than what the memo actually said. There’s a lot of that going around, an epidemic at the Times. David French at NRO writes that it’s not about whites, but Asians.

I’d describe it differently. I’d say the DOJ is enforcing the law. And if you think white applicants would be the prime beneficiary of fair enforcement, you’re sadly mistaken. The true victims of affirmative action are our Asian-American citizens.

I remember a conversation with the mother of another epee fencer who trained with my son when both were applying to college. Her son was Asian. Mine was white. I talked about my son’s chances of getting into MIT. She responded, “are you kidding? What are the chances of another Asian kid with perfect grades and SATs getting into anywhere? They’re a dime a dozen.”

In an op-ed, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president and director-counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill, argues against the DoJ shift.

This is a signal that the administration could be preparing to attack affirmative action, although the Justice Department denies this is the case. If this tactic were to succeed, it would be a severe blow to racial justice.

Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color. Race-conscious admissions policies have made campuses across the country more representative of our society. In doing so, they have helped remedy inequality created by centuries of discrimination.

The vagaries of racial justice may be euphemistic in that they include some while excluding other “students of color,” such as Asians,  Ifill is quite brilliant, and certainly understands the Supreme Court precedent. It’s fair to infer, therefore, that she’s pandering to the feelz of the tribe when her first shot is about racial justice, and her second shot is remedying “inequality created by centuries of discrimination.” She knows damn well that the only justification for this apparent breach of the Equal Protection clause is grounded in the compelling interest of diversity of the student body.

It is a commitment to opening spaces once reserved for whites, and a reordering of power in ways that value African-American, Asian, Native American and Latino lives, voices and demands. Although it has been relentlessly attacked over the past 40 years, affirmative action has undermined the racial exclusivity of our nation’s universities.

Note in the list of the marginalized that “Asian” appears? Asians have suffered because of this zero-sum game. There are only so many seats in the classroom, and once filled, they’re gone. No, not all Asians have tiger moms or ace everything plus play cello (or fence epee). But a disproportionate number do, and it’s not by accident. They work very hard to do well in school. They sacrifice the time they might otherwise spend having fun, playing with friends, getting into a little normal kid-type trouble. It’s not that these Asian kids don’t want to have fun, but they value education and are willing to give up some fun now for achievement later and ultimately a successful happy life.

Is it wrong that people who do everything right, work hard, sacrifice the short term for the long term, find out that there aren’t enough seats in the classroom for them? By Ifill’s argument, they are paying the price for prejudice and discrimination of their ancestors, though for most of us, our ancestors weren’t the ones who did anything to anyone. We came here poor, too. These Asian kids aren’t the scions of slaveholders. Who are they paying for?

There is a larger question as well. Much as we can well appreciate the burdens, the misery, the racism, saddled on minorities, when it comes to your child, what are the chances you will happily forego their admission to Harvard so a marginalized student can take the seat? To consider remedying historic discrimination in theory is one thing. To sacrifice your child for it is another.

And here lies the difference in the argument: if your child doesn’t get into Harvard (or Yale, or wherever it is) because someone of color deserved the seat more, or the same (as in, they were as academically worthy as your child) with the added benefit of bringing diversity that your child wouldn’t bring, you can accept it as being a fair outcome. Everyone understands that they might not make the cut despite their best efforts, and that’s just life.

But if your child is excluded from opportunity because someone who wouldn’t make the cut otherwise but had the requisite skin color, or genitals, or other irrelevant feature, to compensate for what somebody did to another person with the same physical feature many years ago, somebody who is completely unrelated to you, somebody who would have just as likely kept you out of their pristine college as well as them, then this call for racial justice is a price too high to pay.

Affirmative action for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body on campus is long-settled constitutional law, and based upon a rational and compelling reason. And leave Asians off your marginalized list, as they’re working their butts off and getting screwed for it. Let’s not lie about it.

33 comments on “Affirmative Action, But Why?

  1. B. McLeod

    We should not forget there are still also less-than-moderately-performing Asians who benefit from affirmative action. In the discussion at Commenteriat Commune yesterday, a poster linked to a Jeena Cho tweet declaring Ms. Cho’s support for affirmative action and decrying attempts to “use” Asians “as a wedge” on race-based discrimination. Perhaps anomalous, but at least one actual Asian does not feel she was disadvantaged by the system.

    1. SHG Post author

      While it’s true that the stereotype of all Asians being smart and hard-working is just a stereotype, there is an exceptionally strong likelihood that if a person could be ousted from a race for being an embarrassment, Jeena would be raceless. She may well speak for the pathetically miserable, but no one else.

  2. PDB

    Not a fan of AA, but also not a fan of wasting government resources on fighting it.

    But then again, for eight years we had unelected bureaucrats at the Dept of Education wasting government resources to impose their nutty view of Title IX/rape culture on colleges. So I guess it’s time for unelected bureaucrats to impose their view on AA on colleges. What goes around comes around.

    1. SHG Post author

      AA was a ground up cause. Nobody rammed it down colleges’ throats, unlike Lhamon’s Title IX guidance. That doesn’t alter whether you’re for it or not, but whether it was forced upon colleges by bureaucratic fiat or a choice that colleges voluntarily made.

    2. Sane Left Libertarian

      The problem is that it is costing a fortune to not fight it. The diversity industry is causing universities to spend enormous amounts of money to provide at-risk students with their own housing, curricula, administration, exams, and so on. When the coursework proves too difficult, they give up and spend the time documenting micro-aggressions and making demands for their own classes, teachers, dorms, tutors, cultural centers, and the like. In extreme cases, as at Mizzou and Evergreen State, violence breaks out, campuses shut down, and degrees become meaningless.

      I say all this as an academic and a liberal. Making universities conform to students instead of vice-versa is counterproductive and really expensive, and needs to be reworked.

      1. SHG Post author

        AA doesn’t compel colleges to admit unqualified students. That’s a separate issue. Social justice problems (as at Mizzou and Evergreen State, Yale, Harvard and pretty much every school in America) are pervasive, not merely a by-product of unqualified AA-admitted students.

      2. Miles

        Well, this was a shallow yet stupid comment. If you’re an academic, no wonder students are doing so poorly.

        Protip: If you call yourself “sane,” you’re not.

  3. Davis C.

    I’m unconvinced that the educational benefits of racial diversity can actually justify racial discrimination in college admissions. As Justice Thomas said in his concurrence in Fisher, the same argument was used unsuccessfully by the defendants in Brown v. Board of Education, although they were arguing for racially uniform student bodies. Even if it is the case that a certain racial composition (whether a diverse one or a homogeneous one) is more conducive to learning than others (and this is highly doubtful), discrimination on the basis of race can’t be reconciled with the Equal Protection Clause.

    It makes far more sense to argue that people whose ancestors faced significant discrimination should receive some sort of special educational benefit. Justice demands that wrongs like this be made right. I’m skeptical of the wisdom of admitting students who may be underqualified, however. Some other form of reparations would likely be more helpful to such students. In any case, such reparations wouldn’t even be on the basis of race, strictly speaking, because they would not be offered to, say, recent black immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, who didn’t suffer from slavery and Jim Crow at the hands of our country.

    1. SHG Post author

      Okay, then. If anyone wondered what Davis C. found unconvincing, now they know and can sleep at night.

        1. Miles

          I clicked on your link and read your post on this issue. Two thing, one of which SHG alluded to and another based on reading your comment here and your post.

          First: you are taken with yourself as a pundit, as if your values are somehow inherently important enough that merely saying “I believe” is a good enough reason for anyone to care or agree with you. Who are you that anyone gives a damn what you believe?

          Second: When I read your comment, I was prepared to forgive you for being shallow. It was just a comment, so how deep could one expect you to get? But now that I’ve read your post, you are shallow. That’s fine, as most people lack the capacity for deep thought, but for crying out loud, man, keep it to yourself and don’t broadcast it to the internet.

          1. Davis C.

            I’m not as taken with myself as it may seem. I’m attempting to catalog my thoughts online. No one is required to read them. I recognize that I’m not important enough for my opinions to matter. Plus broadcasting my opinions at people who will call me shallow for them is a good way to toughen myself up to prepare myself for the world. So thank you, kind sir.

            1. SHG Post author

              You’ve won me over. I suggest you consider how you frame your ideas to make them stand alone rather than dependent on you, but your willingness to take a punch is admirable.

  4. JAV

    This post made me think of your earlier one, “The Physics of Diversity”. A point can be made that diversity can make a difference in a learning/research environment. But diversity, when it helps, does so in ways that are too subtle to measure with application essays or interviews.

    While a university could focus on their version of “diversity”, the people they inevitably leave out makes me doubt that they should.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s why I linked to the earlier post here. It’s not an easy call by any stretch, and as is so often the case, someone who doesn’t deserve to be harmed gets harmed.

  5. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    You highlight that most people today aren’t even related to the offenders of the past, but why is that important? Do I have to suffer the sins of my father? Say it ain’t so.

    The only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. It’s surprising that you would buy diversity without proof of its benefits. How would you even measure such a thing? We can measure outcomes, and like you say Asians outperform other races in GPA and test scores. Those minority students admitted under such programs don’t do the same. Justice Thomas’s dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger cites some studies to that effect. So let’s create a nebulous concept of diversity to justify our continued discrimination. Great.

    Yours Truly,

    1. SHG Post author

      Dealing with an argument that’s widely accepted by at least one side (reparations are due for past discrimination) doesn’t credit the argument, but provides context to it. Even if you think it’s a lousy argument, it’s worth addressing.

      As to the benefits of diversity, some things don’t lend themselves easily to empirical proof. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t real, just that they’re not easily proven. If you read carefully, you’ll see that I do not support colleges taking students who aren’t fully capable of gaining admissions otherwise, but rather to take the pool of qualified and otherwise admissible applicants and add diversity as an additional factor. This is what distinguishes my view from what Justice Thomas criticizes.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        It would seem then that you don’t support the current way affirmative action is implemented because what you describe isn’t happening. Diversity is pretext for discrimination.

        Throw empiricism out and what are you left with? Feelz.

        Not that that would be the end of the world as we know it or anything. Just par for the course.

        1. SHG Post author

          I support what I say I support. That, dear PK, is why I say it. And not everything proved by empiricism is feelz (and conversely, not everything purportedly supported by empiricism isn’t feelz). Objective experience can sometimes fill the void. But even if it is just feelz, don’t I get to feelz once in a while too?

    2. phv3773

      “The only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

      So says the Chief Justice, talking about voting rights legislation. But it’s a totally bogus argument. Just because one part of the government stops discriminating on the basis of race doesn’t mean that any other part of the government or the society at large will, or that the total negative impact of discrimination is reduced. It’s been made pretty clear by subsequent events.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        Huh. I didn’t remember which one said it. It works here too. Thanks for the cite.

        Justify discrimination on the basis of race however you’d like, it’s still discrimination on the basis of race. Why is that ok? You might say diversity, or you might say to make up for historical wrongs, but those are both bogus.

        The reality hurts. Take away affirmative action completely and make the admissions process blind to race and minority enrollment plummets. That sucks and doesn’t make us feel like the warm melting pot of ethnicity where everyone can achieve if they only try hard enough like we were taught. That’s uncomfortable, but wait there’s more! Minorities are poorer and don’t have access to good public school education, but those problems are big and hard to address. Why don’t we make up a concept and then bludgeon everyone with how awesome it is. You don’t think diversity is good? The billy club for you.

            1. phv3773

              I’m cool with sarcasm, but I’m irked at the way the CJ gets away with these bon mots which don’t stand up to scrutiny.

              On affirmative action, it needs to recognized that discrimination is the whole point of admissions. Some get in, some don’t. Some of the bases for discrimination seem worthy, some don’t. Some are explicit, some are implicit. Some are conscious, some are unconscious. Affirmative Action was a bureaucratic attempt to help admissions officers Do The Right Thing but anytime you shuffle the discrimination priorities, some innocent is going to end up with the short straw.

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  7. Erik H

    I support AA but I’m not a fan of how it’s implemented. If we’re going to have what amounts to a per se equal protection violation going on at every college in the nation, we need a lot more sunshine.

    Of course, the reason it’s hidden is because folks don’t want us to know how much of a GPA/SAT boost they give, much less how they boost minorities or special groups. That way they don’t have to talk about it or justify it (and that way they can pretend that nobody will assume lower skills from the benefited group, though that sure isn’t working well.) But how the heck is the country supposed to cogently decide whether we’re doing a decent job of balancing interests and action, when we don’t even know how it’s being balanced?

    1. SHG Post author

      The country doesn’t have to decide. Colleges decide what their program will be within the parameters established by law. They aren’t asking if Erik (or Greenfield) approves of their specific program, which explains why there’s no line in front of your door (or mine) of admissions directors with cookies.

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