The Dirty Secret of Affirmative Action

Mark Nuckols
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Posted: Jul 09, 2015 11:00 AM
The Dirty Secret of Affirmative Action

There is a dirty little secret that is virtually taboo to discuss in America. Affirmative action has produced an entire generation of Ivy educated African-Americans and other minorities, many of whom have received an education of dubious value, despite attending elite institutions. Let me hasten here to say I do not believe African-Americans or any other minority are intellectually inferior to any other racial or social group in any way. (And “Womyn’s Studies” has in a very similar manner produced a generation of Ivy educated women who likewise have acquired an ersatz education which is more or less without any real intellectual or social redeeming value.)

High school students compete fiercely for the limited number of spots at elite universities such as Harvard. But it’s a grossly unfair competition, and not at all based solely on merit. Basically, it is a game rigged so that white students from the wealthiest families and minorities from relatively well-off families have almost guaranteed spots, while lower and middle-income white students are relegated to lower tier schools, with correspondingly diminished academic and professional prospects. For example, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey actively recruit at Harvard, graduates of Lunchbucket U need not apply.

But politically liberal administrators and professors at elite schools fiercely believe that it is a moral and educational imperative that their student bodies somehow “reflect America.” In their simplistic and flawed conception, America is composed of “individuals” who are admitted according to strict academic criteria and “blocs” of other applicants who are admitted according to racial criteria. So 15% of the entering class must be African-American, hell or high water, without the same regard to academic performance or potential.

When the overriding goal is to admit students of a particular racial or ethnic group without regard to academic standards, this inevitably leads to lower academic standards for that group. In the case of affirmative action, it has led to a shockingly disparate two-tier system. While white students with SAT scores in the top 1% struggle to be admitted to the most elite universities, African-American students with scores not far above average are admitted practically automatically. A black student with a 75th percentile SAT can easily expect to attend an Ivy League institution. A white student with the same score is realistically looking at a range of distinctly second tier schools.

One obvious result of this blatantly unfair system of preferences is that the people harmed by it naturally resent it, and may understandably also resent the people who unfairly benefit from it. This is in fact something people do talk about privately, but usually dare not do so in public. But this unequal system of preferences creates hidden but very real divisions in our society.

Another result of this misguided policy is that many its beneficiaries arrive on campus unprepared for many academic pursuits. There is a woeful lack of minority enrollment in so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). That is one reason for the massive growth of departments such as African-American Studies and the like. And let me hasten to say, African-American history and culture is an important subject deserving of study. But these academic departments are grossly outsized compared to the many other important themes in the history and culture of our nation or the larger world.

It is a sad fact that slaves were not often critical actors in history. And until very recent times, neither were women, or poor white males for that matter. As a matter of historical import, yes, the deliberations of 55 propertied white men at the Constitutional Convention, for example, are in fact more historically important than the daily routines of their wives, or of African-American slaves, or of poor Scotch-Irish farmers in the hinterlands of Virginia.

But African-American studies has morphed into a New Deal style academic make-work program. For all too many universities, it has become an all too easy way to employ a necessary quota of black professors who aren’t qualified to teach other subjects. It’s no surprise that at Harvard, for example, there are practically no African-American faculty in physics, economics, chemistry or math. In fact, at Harvard much of African-American faculty are concentrated in an outsized African-American Studies Department, or teaching African-American focused courses in other humanities departments like English. And African-American studies has some 38 professors compared to 17 teaching European history, and a mere three teaching Chinese history.

And African-American studies has become the default course of study for all too many black students. For such students, this is an education offering a sadly limited worldview, and one susceptible to self-celebration. It also is not an education designed to provide many economically useful skills.

Affirmative action is a blatant system of racial discrimination, and the Supreme Court should declare it unconstitutional. But it is also bad public policy, producing few if any of the benefits its advocates have claimed for it, and many starkly negative unintended consequences. And it creates more racial divisions than it bridges. It is long past time for this failed attempt in social engineering to go.