The Bogus Rationalizations for Affirmative Action

Mark Nuckols
Posted: Jul 02, 2015 9:14 AM
The Bogus Rationalizations for Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court has just agreed to reconsider the constitutionality of racial preferences in university admissions (although the advocates of these preferences prefer the seemingly more uplifting term “affirmative action.”) It is long past time that the Supreme Court declared this insidious and counterproductive policy unconstitutional for public universities and colleges, and hopefully private institutions will decide that it is incumbent upon them to also stop basing admissions decisions on race, gender or sexual preference.

The idea of granting preferences based on race, gender or sexual orientation is so offensive and so un-American that its proponents have had to construct an elaborate edifice of rationalizations to make it seem not only morally justifiable but entirely reasonable and downright necessary to the educational mission. But this edifice collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

There was a time I supported affirmative action. It seemed to me a matter of simple fairness to open up greater opportunities to historically disadvantaged minorities. But during the five years I spent in elite graduate schools I saw first-hand the woeful consequences, some unintended and some very much so deliberate, of this terribly wrong-headed policy.

When I was in law school, I heard the moral justification expressed in extremely blunt terms: 'It’s Payback for Slavery and Jim Crow.' Now, the minority students at Georgetown University Law School by and large had attended tony prep schools and graduated from elite (and expensive) Ivy League universities. And to my knowledge, none had experienced the horrors of chattel slavery or the indignities of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Nonetheless, as one prominent African-American professor adamantly insisted, if a white coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia and an African-American son of a wealthy doctor were competing for the same spot in the law school class, it was morally necessary to give that spot to the African-American applicant, even if his LSAT score and grades were lower, simply because that is what America owed to black people.

So one inevitable result of weighing a thumb heavily in favor of minority applicants is that less qualified minority applicants are admitted while more qualified applicants are turned away. Inevitable, since a minority applicant with a lower LSAT score and undergraduate grades is automatically assigned extra points simply on the basis of which box they check on the “race” part of the application form. And there is ample evidence that minority students end up struggling to perform academically or even pass the bar exam. This performance gap has been both significant and persistent.

The other main justification of affirmative action is the urgent necessity of “diversity.” Now, Georgetown and other elite schools do have a certain kind of diversity. When I was there, my classmates included upper-class white males, upper-class white womyn, upper-class African-Americans and Hispanics, and upper-class gays. It truly did represent “the beautiful rainbow of diversity” if diversity can be reduced to skin color, gender, and sexual preference. But there were practically zero students who came from working-class backgrounds, or from the rural South, or who had ever personally experienced poverty or discrimination. (In fact, as someone from a poor rural Southern family, I was more than once sneeringly called an ignorant redneck.)

Now, apparently this “diversity” has some crucial symbolic significance, so that the school website can proudly feature a lot of photos with lots of white, black and brown smiling faces. But the more purportedly serious argument is that racial (and gender and sexual preference) diversity is absolutely necessary to truly informed classroom discussion of modern social issues. For example, how can the history of Supreme Court decisions dealing with race possibly be discussed without African-Americans in the room to share their personal experiences and insights?

That almost sounds convincing if you don’t give the question any serious thought. After all, how can you discuss Plessy v Ferguson, the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision establishing the odious doctrine of “separate but equal” without the participation of black students, who presumably know more about the Jim Crow South than any white person possibly could? Well, you could just as reasonably argue that you couldn’t possibly discuss the 1917 October Russian Revolution without a Russian student there to explain how he felt about Bolshevism and the Tsar.

In fact, having read C. Vann Woodward’s authoritative history "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," as well as Eric Foner’s magisterial "Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution," and Eugene Genovese’s definitive social history of slavery "Roll, Jordan, Roll," I actually knew the relevant history far better than almost any of my classmates, black or white. But the presumption was that I couldn’t really understand what slavery was like because I was white. Well, it is utter nonsense to think that only a native born Russian can understand life in 1917 Petrograd, or that only a black person can understand 19th century American history and race relations. In fact, very often such a person presumed to be uniquely personally knowledgeable in fact is prisoner to cheap popular myths and misconceptions. In fact, the contribution most African-American students made to discussions of race and law rarely went beyond cheap platitudes, but were considered priceless wisdom merely because professors naively assumed that growing up black on the Upper West Side and attending Yale was somehow in some ethereal spiritual sense the same as spending a lifetime of bondage on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 19th century.

In short, so-called affirmative action is no more than a valuable benefit doled out to a privileged class of beneficiaries, who understandably wish to defend it. And it is justified on the basis of utterly specious rationalization because there is no legitimate educational purpose served by affirmative action. And it is time for the Supreme Court to finally recognize that just because it is a policy deeply favored by socially liberal professors at elite universities, it is nonetheless unconstitutional and bad public policy to boot. And I suspect there are finally the five votes necessary to junk this misguided and dysfunctional experiment in unadulterated racial politics disguised as benign social progress.