The distortion of affirmative action

Posted: Mar 01, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Advocates of affirmative action in higher education scored two debilitating triumphs in December when courts upheld the legality of racial preferences in admissions as administered at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan. A few more such victories and affirmative action will be completely incoherent. Affirmative action originally concerned employment, not college admissions. It was a remedial--and hence presumably temporary--measure of restitution for injustice done to blacks by history. But both December cases turned on a different rationale--``diversity,'' a benefit for campus culture. That makes affirmative action in higher education into a potentially permanent servant of institutions' interests rather than a theoretically temporary assistance for blacks. John Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that justifications for affirmative action ``are becoming incongruous with the changing population of the United States.'' This is because of the policy's changing beneficiaries, particularly Latinos and Asian-Americans--together, 16 percent of the population, compared with blacks at 12 percent. Without serious national debate or congressional guidance, affirmative action has been broadened to include various other government-favored minorities, and increasingly it benefits immigrants and their children--people who came to the United States voluntarily, not in bondage. This broadening of affirmative action sharpens the dilemma that, in the landmark 1978 Bakke decision concerning racial preferences in higher education, troubled Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell: How do you equitably administer affirmative action only to certain groups ``whose societal injury is thought to exceed some arbitrary level of tolerability''? The suddenly fashionable ``diversity'' rationale is one response to this difficulty. It is a way of changing the subject. Yet awkward subjects multiply and cannot forever be evaded. Skrentny is astonished that in neither the Michigan nor the Washington case did the court consider the question of the criteria for determining which minority groups should benefit from affirmative action. This, even though those courts concluded--one suspects perfunctorily and formulaically--that the two schools' plans are constitutional because they are ``narrowly tailored'' and serve a ``compelling'' purpose. But how could the courts know that without knowing who they were talking about? However, then, as affirmative action metastasizes into a shapeless component of the spreading racial and ethnic spoils system, many questions are evaded, such as: How much minority ancestry must one have to contribute to ``diversity'' or otherwise qualify for preferences? Skrentny, anticipating conflicts arising from ``the convergence of affirmative action and immigration policy'' writes: ``It is only a matter of time before future litigants or political opponents begin to question whether, in a program such as that at Michigan, Latino applicants deserve all of the 20 points that are added to the admissions scores of black applicants, or whether someone who is half- or quarter-Latino should get all 20 points, or whether Mexican and Puerto Rican applicants deserve more points than Salvadoran or Cuban applicants, or whether a recent Latino immigrant should receive all of the points, and so on.'' And on and on. Such arithmetic would have suited Nazi Germany's Nuremberg laws. It mocks America's premises. Even if affirmative action were restored to its original focus on black Americans, and even if the ``diversity'' rationale were jettisoned, John McWhorter and a hearty band of other black thinkers who agree with him would remain critics of affirmative action in higher education. In his new book, ``Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,'' McWhorter, a young professor of linguistics at Berkeley, sharply criticizes a much-discussed recent book defending such affirmative action, ``The Shape of the River'' by William Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. Bowen and Bok cite data demonstrating that most beneficiaries of affirmative action are happy in their lives and contented in their jobs. McWhorter faults Bowen and Bok for not recognizing that the contentment of affirmative action's beneficiaries might be evidence of damage done to them by affirmative action. McWhorter argues that it renders beneficiaries unconcerned about the fact that high-achieving blacks can never be properly confident about, or fully credited for, their achievements, and they come to feel entitled to evade rigorous competition and to make less than their best efforts to earn university admissions. McWhorter is incensed that affirmative action advocates believe ``that the children I will have by 2020 ought to be held to a lower academic standard because my father was not allowed to fly planes in the Navy in 1944.'' If they do not believe that, let them say why not.