I often say on this site that I favor a form of affirmative action for admission to schools and colleges (not necessarily for hiring above that level), and I favor this as a form of reparations. I’ve received a lot of pushback from readers who either think we shouldn’t have any affirmative action, or, if we retain it, it should be based on class or even on “viewpoint”, not race. I keep thinking about these counterarguments and I see their merits, but I’m not yet ready to give up on affirmative action.
I do remember, though, that when it was instituted when I was younger, it was said to be a temporary expedient, perhaps lasting 50 years or so. It’s clear that that’s not going to happen, and the DEI bureaucracy that pervades universities will insure it won’t happen, for the employees would be out of a job if we achieved equity (equal representation of groups). But they wouldn’t be out of a job if they adhered to my notion of equality (“equal opportunity”), for equal opportunity, given cultural differences and preferences, will never produce perfect equity. DEI initiatives are thus aimed at achieving not equality, but equity. This ensures they’ll be permanent.
And even arriving at equal opportunity will take years and tons of money and social engineering and public will and commitment, and we’re nowhere near that. Ergo, we should get used to affirmative action as a fact of life—unless the new Supreme Court gets rid of it, which is not unlikely.
What do I mean when I say we need affirmative action as a form of reparations? I don’t mean that someone who’s African-American or Hispanic should get extra points simply because of their ethnicity. An upper-middle-class African-American, for instance, presumably has about the same advantages and opportunities as those of other ethnicity in their income group, and needs no thumb on the college-admissions scale. Rather, I favor those minorities who were disadvantaged by bigotry and racism in the past, and may not have achieved because of that racism. It’s indisputable that bigotry has held down generations of minorities, and if everyone had equal opportunity, we’d have substantially more equity than now—though perhaps not the degree of equity that people want.
I thus connect ethnicity with class, and there’s no doubt that that’s also true. Thus the race-based affirmative action I’d like to see is also class-based admission. “Why not, then,” you will ask, “don’t you just call for affirmative action based on class?” Well, I do, but even the impoverished and disadvantaged admitted to schools should, at least for a time, be weighted a bit more towards minorities. There’s something about having elite colleges almost totally lacking some minorities that disgusts me.
Asking for some race-based admission will of course mean lowering standards so long as these minorities perform less well than whites or Asians, and I admit this. I simply ask that all those who are admitted be deemed qualified to succeed at a school and be able to benefit from what a school has to offer. (John McWhorter appears to oppose affirmative action completely, and argues that “not everyone has to go to college”).
We already have affirmative action for other groups: for example older students, veterans, and so on. (I oppose preferential admission for the children of alumni—legacies—or for athletes.) This too may involve lowering formal academic standards, but you also get some students whose experiences may add to the educational experience of their fellow students. So why not throw some disadvantaged minorities into these groups? Wouldn’t their own experiences enrich the learning experience of the entire student body? I’ll admit that I have no evidence that diversity of a class makes for a better learning experience or even more learning, and I seem to recall some counterevidence, but if there’s simply a lack of evidence I’ll stick with my impressions.
Evaluating racial diversity as an inherent educational “good” was one rationale for the U.S. Supreme Court to allow preferential admission of minorities (without quotas) in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case (1978). But four of the justices (Marshall, White, Blackmun and Brennan) also wrote “”government may take race into account when it acts not to demean or insult any racial group, but to remedy disadvantages cast on minorities by past racial prejudice”. That is reparations.
Many schools like ours also have “need-blind admissions”, in which students are admitted based on their qualifications alone, and then if there are financial problems the University helps out with scholarships, jobs, and the like. This, however, is not affirmative action, for admission is still based on meritocratic criteria. Any financial disadvantages based on class are rectified after admission.
I throw this question out to readers because it’s a tough one for me. Clearly nobody wants a college in which every student is identical. How can you learn without at least a variety of viewpoints among students? (And that, of course, brings up the question of whether we need politically-based affirmative action!). Does not affirmative action help bring about that diversity, while at the same time trying to rectify historical injustice? Or is rectifying historical injustice not what universities are supposed to be doing? (I could make an argument for that view, too.)
So, weigh in below. Should we have affirmative action for admission to elite secondary schools and to colleges? If so, on what should it be based: race, class, viewpoint, experience, age, or some other criteria?
To me this question is a most important one, for it bears directly on calls for equity that are ubiquitous in America—not just in schools, but in every field of endeavor.