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.