Thoughts On Affirmative Action

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 28 2014 @ 12:59pm

Freddie has a long post, in which he expresses exasperation at my opposition to racial discrimination against Asian-American students in the Ivy League. His core point is that without affirmative action, and the punishment of Asian-Americans for their race, there would be far lower proportions of black and Latino students in college, and that therefore ending it is grotesquely irresponsible if you care about “racial economic equality” in America. Above all, I am talking in “abstractions”, while I seem oblivious to the human tragedy of black and Latino students being shut out of college.

Some of our disagreements are structural. Freddie, for example, writes:

This whole debate  depends on a flatly bogus notion of what college is, or what our country is. There is no such thing as meritocracy. There has never been anything resembling meritocracy.

In contrast, I think that the establishment of standardized testing in the post-war years – together with the GI bill – was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America. Millions of people who previously were unable to go to college had sudden access to education for the first time in American history. The SAT liberated millions from the grueling fates of their parents. The huge increase in the numbers of women in colleges and the workforce also powered more meritocracy – as more competition in a labor force will tend to do. Both of these changes were huge gains for meritocracy in America. Is this a perfect system? Of course not. It’s increasingly compromised by extreme economic inequality and all the corruptions it entails. Nepotism, racism, and sexism also play a big part, as they will in every human society, in frustrating the goal of equal opportunity. We have a flawed and imperfect meritocracy (when in history has there ever been anything else?). But the idea that there “has never been anything resembling meritocracy” in America is hyperbole.

Freddie says I operate in abstractions, rather than human beings. But I am defending real human beings who often come from poor immigrant families and who have worked hard and scored high grades and are then denied a place at college solely because of the color of their skin. That human experience is a terrible one to inflict in a meritocracy. I’m baffled why many are so comfortable with this ugly fact or feel no sympathy for the plight of those treated by Harvard today the way Jews were in the 1920s. Freddie argues that this is defensible because it is a benign and well-meaning form of racism. But racism has always been defended as benign and well-meant, hasn’t it? Shouldn’t we be a teensy bit skeptical about such claims?

But if I oppose affirmative action, what would I do to mitigate racial economic inequality? Plenty of things, actually – and none of them requiring race discrimination.

In colleges, I find California’s “10 percent of the top students in every high school” to be a sensible way to superficially overcome the issue of geographic segregation. This gives smart black and Latino students a much better chance to overcome the deep disadvantages of neighborhood, without using race as a criterion for getting into college. In my original post, I also favor getting rid of alumni legacy places at colleges – which, along with a much smaller number of athletic scholarships, could open up many places for meritorious students of color.

More deeply, I favor intensive and aggressive attempts to improve public education from pre-K on, especially in poor rural and urban districts. I’m agnostic about how we do this – charter schools, higher salaries for good teachers, more spending, period – but the years long before college are much more critical for future success than four years at the age of 18. In broader areas of racial injustice, I’ve long been an opponent of the drug war, for legalizing weed, in particular, for ending stop-and-frisk, and so on. Whatever we can do to strengthen fatherhood and family structure among the rural and urban poor will make a difference as well. Two other policies that I favor that would, I hope, increase meritocracy in America: the restoration of a serious estate tax; and universal healthcare through expansion of Medicaid and through the ACA. I think the destabilizing effects of the globalized, high-tech economy require aggressive government action to re-balance opportunity. I am not one of those who simply want to do away with affirmative action and do nothing else.

Would this erode the racial imbalances at college? Almost certainly. Would it abolish them? I don’t know. Unlike many others, I am open to the idea that the persistently resilient racial differences in IQ – across history and class (in which Asians do better than whites) – might not be entirely a function of America’s “congenital racism”. Unlike many others, my concern is not with equality of outcomes, but with equality of opportunity. And discriminating against people on the basis of their race – however benignly – is not conducive to equality of opportunity. It is, in fact, deeply corrosive of it.

(Sidebar photo: Harvard’s Widener Library, by John Phelan)