19 thoughts on affirmative action
Progressive should look more cynically at institutional motives
The Supreme Court has struck down affirmative action, which was widely expected by people who pay attention to such things. But Supreme Court decisions are in general hard to predict so often even the “expected” is a bit unexpected.
Because the Dobbs decision and abortion rights will feature heavily in Democrats’ 2024 campaign, I expect there will be considerable pressure to fold this decision into a broader critique of right-wing judicial overreach. It’s important to understand that, unlike abortion rights, affirmative action is unpopular.
In general, people sometimes characterize the Supreme Court as an “undemocratic” branch of government. In truth, though, the US system as a whole has tons of undemocratic features and oftentimes the court’s role — including in iconic progressive decisions like Obergefell and Brown — is to hand down a popular policy that’s blocked in Congress for reasons other than public opinion. Dobbs was an unusual example of the Supreme Court issuing a grossly unpopular ruling on a high-salience issue. This is closer to Obergefell, forcing through a policy change that people agree with but that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Milan’s take: Many defenders of affirmative action still, implicitly, view it as a reparations program, with the “diversity rationale” being a required legal fig leaf. But as a reparations program, it doesn’t make sense. For one, the numbers show that burden of adjustment is falling on Asian-Americans. To put it bluntly, we weren’t the ones doing slavery or Jim Crow, and it feels unfair that we are being asked to pay for someone else’s father’s sins. It also doesn’t help most Black and Hispanic kids, because the vast majority do not attend highly selective colleges.
Maya’s take: As a Harvard student, I am deeply saddened by this ruling. I think college students learn just as much from their peers as they do from their professors. Harvard’s race-conscious admissions allowed students with diverse backgrounds to learn from each other's perspectives. In my classes, we had discussions about race, identity, and oppression that would have been intellectually impoverished without the presence of Black, Hispanic, and Native American voices. I am concerned that by reducing diversity in the classroom, this Supreme Court decision will worsen the quality of education at Harvard and universities around the country.
As a person who benefitted from affirmative action in college admissions, I’m struck that one of the key flaws of the program is that it would be considered an insult to say that I benefitted from affirmative action. That strikes me as a really deep conceptual problem with this approach. You don’t see people saying “look at all these great affirmative action success stories” because it’s considered demeaning and insulting to characterize a person that way.
Because progressives are uncomfortable with straightforwardly defending affirmative action, they often pivot to whataboutism regarding admissions benefits that primarily benefit white students — legacies, athletes, donors’ kids, people from rural states. And there are a lot of good criticisms of those programs. But I think one of the biggest is that they are all ways of assuring that the burden of adjustment related to affirmative actions falls, unfairly, on Asians, while ensuring the most privileged strata of white society are insulated.
It happens to be the case that the faculty and administrators at America’s top universities are overwhelmingly progressive people, which leads to a lot of progressive credulity about what these institutions do and how they make decisions relative to how progressives would view a large and wealthy business corporation.
In the real world, Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford make decisions based on what they think is good for Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford. They think it would be a “bad look” for Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford to have very few Black and Hispanic students, and they are probably correct about that. So they have crafted admissions policies to avoid that outcome.
It’s notable that Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford don’t mind if one of their Hispanic admits is a quarter-Cuban guy with light skin who grew up in an English-speaking household in Greenwich Village and went to Dalton. The point is to avoid the “bad look” by putting something down on the official diversity numbers.
For years, there’s been a move among Harvard students and faculty who are descended from people held in slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War to get the university to say how many of its Black students are Generational African-Americans as opposed to descendants of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. The university keeps refusing to do this, again because the priority is to avoid the “bad look,” not to achieve any particular social justice goal.
That Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford pursue self-interested public relations and fundraising goals rather than social justice goals is unsurprising — it’s just the same as Apple or Walmart or Pfizer or Chevron. Which isn’t to say these institutions are bad. Those four universities produce some excellent outputs, as do those four business corporations. But in no case is “let the rich and powerful institution just do whatever it wants” the right regulatory solution.
There’s a robust debate in the literature about “mismatch theory” — the idea that affirmative action actually harms its supposed beneficiaries by pushing them into courses they’re not prepared for. My read of this is that’s mostly not true (Zachary Bleember’s paper is the best evidence), largely because the most selective institutions have the most material resources available to deploy toward educating undergraduates.
When my son was five, he asked if the weakest students enroll at the best colleges because they’re the ones who need the most help. That is, of course, not how it works. But “the smarter you are at age 18, the more educational resources you should receive” is not an obviously correct allocation of social resources. I think if you’re concerned about social justice, you should just not give your money to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and should instead give it to an institution that educates more students from modest backgrounds.
I think professors at top universities face a conceptual problem in that they want to affirm values like “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” but the whole point of top universities is to be elitist, hierarchical, and exclusionary. I’m not 100 percent sure what to tell people in this situation. But if you want to be equitable and inclusive, go teach in a community college or a public high school. If you want to cultivate excellence among a social elite, then own up to that as a mission in life. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do, but it’s deeply confusing to try to do both of them simultaneously.
Complying with this ruling would, in fact, be bad for Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford, both for the PR reasons I’ve emphasized but also, I think, for the educational reasons that Maya emphasized and that constitute the official rationale for affirmative action.
Eugene Scott writes that this decision will “likely jeopardize the representation of Black and Latino students on campuses nationwide.” I think this is wrong. Some campuses will see representation of Black and Hispanic students decline, but other campuses like the University of Michigan and the Berkeley will see representation go up. Affirmative action does not magically create additional Hispanic students with good enough SAT scores to attend selective colleges, it just shifts them around.
To the extent that you take seriously the educational benefits of diversity, ending affirmative action will redistribute diversity away from the most selective schools to a set of somewhat-less-selective schools which seems … fine.
To the extent you worry about Black and Hispanic underrepresentation in selective colleges in general and the downstream consequences of that for representation in skilled professionals generally (and I think we should worry about this), you really do have to care about the pipeline problem, embrace the fact that K-12 school quality matters, and read my ongoing education reform series. More phonics!
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