WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action is incoherent, disingenuous, intellectually muddled and morally confused. Yet, it is welcome.
Let me explain. Affirmative action began as an attempt to compensate for the effects of past discrimination against African-Americans. Forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, however, that justification is increasingly difficult to maintain. Proponents have accordingly reinvented the rationale. Affirmative action has metastasized into ``diversity'' in whose name an arbitrary selection of favored minorities (at Michigan, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans) is entitled to favors denied other Americans purely because of their ethnicity and race.
In the Michigan law school case, the court justified allowing official racial discrimination--the majority opinion itself uses the term ``racial preferences''--in order to achieve diversity. Why? Because a ``critical mass'' of minorities improves the educational environment. For this, the justices relied on some social science. In fact, there is contrary social science. But the real question is: Should we be violating the fundamental principle of equality before the law in order to attain a speculative, minor improvement in the study environment of a university?
And even if we grant the existence of this marginal gain, it is grossly outweighed by the huge social, moral and human costs of racial discrimination:
(1) The stigmatization of all minority achievement, as it gratuitously opens the question of whether any minority person in high position got there by merit or by skin color.
(2) The racial antagonism automatically engendered when race is used to prefer or penalize innocent citizens.
(3) The ruin of a legion of minority students who are artificially promoted to institutions where they cannot compete academically and where they therefore fail--when they could have been brilliant successes at institutions more suited to their academic abilities. Before affirmative action was banned at UC Berkeley, the non-graduation rate for whites was 16 percent; for blacks, 42 percent. Guilty white liberals could thus point proudly to high minority admissions numbers, caring nothing about the fact that they had turned almost half that cohort--perfectly bright young people who might have succeeded elsewhere--into failures.
Why then am I glad the court, for all of its sophistry, upheld affirmative action? For those who believe that affirmative action, for all of its noble purposes, is extraordinarily destructive to both its beneficiaries and its victims, and to both race relations and constitutional principles, it is tempting to wish it all swept away by the Supreme Court.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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