About a year ago the Trump administration shook up higher education when news leaked that it was to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Recently, the administration weighed in on the lawsuit against Harvard University that claims that the ways Harvard takes race into account discriminates against Asian-American applicants. This week the Departments of Education and Justice rescinded Obama-era guidelines that encouraged taking race into account in a holistic admissions process as a path towards the educational benefits of having a diverse campus.
This last move by the Trump administration was not surprising, but it does not change the law. Given recent court decisions, colleges and universities are still free to develop policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Wesleyan University will continue to use our nuanced, holistic admissions procedures, which act affirmatively on our core priorities and values ― including diversity.
Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.
Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals ― here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”
Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have turned to the federal government to ensure access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration attempting to push higher education away from affirmative action. This latest threat to higher education ― like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system ― is at its core another attempt by elites to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.
We who work in educational institutions must push back against this threat, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.
College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it.
5 thoughts on “Defend Affirmative Action”
Instead of dumbing down the universities, why not provide real improvement in educational opportunities for the disadvantaged at the primary and secondary levels – then everyone will get a fair go. Education is the great leveller – but you guys are bringing down the level too far. Keep the level high where it should be – it doesn’t make sense to cheapen the value of the prize.
If you would ever move off traditional demoncrap party talking points, you would find out that in the real world the best job of preparing “African Americans” for life, for becoming doctors, lawyers, college presidents is done by traditional black colleges. Live your false utopian abstractions on your bedpost. Just ask any “honest” med school dean who is best prepared for med school.
A liberal consensus has settled on the view that American schools must be more thoroughly integrated before black and Hispanic students can perform at the level of their white peers. The New York Times editorial board, for instance, recently described the city’s elite high schools as “profoundly segregated,” a state of affairs that calls to mind “the spirit of Jim Crow.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose long-form reporting on the subject earned her a MacArthur Genius Grant last year, detailed her experience as a black mother trying to find a school for her daughter in an “intensely segregated” system.
Whether Hannah-Jones and her ilk are right about the existence of segregation depends on what one means by the word. As it was once understood, “segregation” referred to the state-enforced policy of keeping whites and blacks apart; if progressives are worried about this kind of segregation, then they missed the boat by about 60 years. But Hannah-Jones is referring to segregation 2.0, under which—despite the existence of numerous laws and government programs actively promoting racial inclusion in housing and education—people of different ethnic and racial groups still tend to live among one another, for various reasons. Under this new definition, America is hopelessly segregated––but then, so is Manhattan’s Chinatown, so is Brooklyn’s Hasidic-Jewish enclave, and so are most other neighborhoods on earth.
If Americans have clustered along racial lines for the past five decades, free from state coercion, then why do neo-integrationists perceive a problem? The answer lies in one of the most famous rulings in American legal history: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” decreed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in his 1954 verdict in Brown v. Board of Education. If separate is unequal by its very nature, then it doesn’t matter whether blacks and whites have remained clustered by law or by choice; either way, we must integrate before blacks and Hispanics can excel academically.
But Warren’s pronouncement, iconic though it has become, was not true. Yes, separate was unequal. And yes, ending forced segregation was unambiguously the right move. But inequality was not an inherent consequence of racial separation itself. Rather, the inferior performance of black schools was the result of other factors—most black schools received fewer resources, black families were locked out of many sectors of the economy, black parents were less likely to be educated, and so on. Had all these contingent factors been different, there’s no reason to assume that black schools would have underperformed solely because there were no whites around. Separate was not inherently unequal. It was contingently unequal.
Warren’s claim stemmed from a popular misinterpretation of Kenneth Clark’s famous 1939 doll experiment, which found that black students preferred to play with white dolls over black ones. In the minds of many, this study definitively proved that segregation lowered black self-esteem all by itself. But Clark’s study actually found the reverse: even though the South was more segregated, Southern blacks were less likely to choose the white doll than Northern blacks were. Moreover, the most extensive study of American schools ever conducted, the Coleman report of 1966, found that the positive correlation between racial integration and student performance was “less than, and largely accounted for by, other characteristics of the student body than the racial composition.”
If Warren’s edict were true, then we wouldn’t see all-black schools that perform at the level of all-white or racially mixed schools. But such schools have existed for decades. Dunbar High, an all-black public school in Washington, D.C., outscored two out of three white academic high schools in the city as early as 1899. Neither destitute nor affluent, Dunbar students exceeded the national average on IQ tests, despite the school’s paltry segregation-era funding. As Thomas Sowell quipped, “Dunbar was located within walking distance of the Supreme Court that essentially declared its existence impossible.”
More recently, Success Academy in New York City, a chain of public charter schools that overwhelmingly serves poor black and Latino students, outperformed state averages on standardized tests in 2016. This year, Success middle-schoolers, though enrolled by lottery, were more than twice as likely as black and Latino students citywide to gain acceptance to New York’s elite high schools. The existence of schools like Dunbar and Success may surprise neo-integrationists, but it does not surprise those of us who reject the idea that black kids must sit near white kids in order to learn algebra.
A familiar neo-integrationist argument asserts that poor students do better in wealthy schools than they do in poor schools. Blacks are more likely to be poor than whites; therefore, we must integrate schools so that black kids can reap the benefits of going to school with kids from wealthier families. But this argument only works in a world where “black” is a synonym for “poor.” To the contrary, most black Americans aren’t poor and most poor Americans aren’t black. The same is true of Hispanics. If poverty is the real issue, then why not talk about it directly, instead of using race as a proxy?
Another neo-integrationist argument, heard recently in the debate about New York City’s entrance exam for its elite high schools, is that poor blacks and Hispanics do not, and cannot be expected to, spend time and money preparing for entrance exams. Admitting students based on test scores alone thus puts blacks and Hispanics at an unfair disadvantage. But as with many progressive arguments about education, this one fails to explain the success of Asian-Americans, who are over-represented in elite schools, regardless of socioeconomic status. The New York Times editorial board admits that many of the Asian-American students that populate the city’s elite high schools “come from families that have scrimped on essentials like food to pay for test prep.” Scrimping on necessities may have conferred advantages onto Asian-American kids, but only in the upside-down minds of New York Times editorialists could such gains be called unfair.
According to the Times, “generations of poverty and racism” render modern-day blacks and Hispanics distinct from Asian-Americans—and thus not usefully compared— even though Asian-Americans have also experienced plenty of racism and poverty. But there is no reason to believe that racism and poverty cause academic apathy to begin with. After emancipation, for instance, newly freed blacks launched a heroic effort to learn how to read and write, increasing the black literacy rate from 5 percent to 66 percent in just 50 years. Generations of enslavement led not to academic disinterest but to an intense thirst for knowledge.
The neo-integrationists believe that helping blacks and Hispanics means changing the system until it rewards whatever level of effort blacks and Hispanics are already putting in. But this is like training for a marathon by redefining “marathon” to mean however many miles you can already run—it might seem rewarding in the short-term, but it removes the incentive to improve. And the track record of social engineers should make us profoundly skeptical that a top-down effort to determine where millions of individuals educate themselves would go off without a hitch or an unintended consequence. The neo-integrationist agenda offers fake help that would lead to even faker progress, and blacks and Hispanics should reject it roundly.
Merit-based immigration systems are not necssarily attempts by elites to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.
Canada, Austrlia and New Zeland often cited as examples of countries that successfully use a points-based immigration system while embracing multiculturalism. For example, Canada introduced its points system in 1967 in an attempt to overcome fluctuations in the inflow of migrant workers by linking immigration to the needs of the labour market, and to move away from the previously racist ‘whites only’ entry criteria. The system, in combination with other reforms, has led to a shift in migrants’ origin from 85 per cent European in the mid-1950s to around only 15 per cent now.
Asian Americans are the biggest victims of such action, as the quotas for African Americans are taken from Asian Americans, not from you white people. It surely does not cost anything for you Whites to be pro affirmative action.
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