Jewish World Review July 18, 2003 / 18 Tamuz, 5762
The Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action admission policy -- on the grounds that the public interest is served through the promotion of a racially diverse student body -- is an act of infantilization whose true gist is heard in the goo-gooing voice of a doting parent: You poor dear little things, we know you can't make it on your own, but don't worry, mommy and daddy will help. We'll hold your hand, stroke your head, give you a boost up the stairs, and we'll do it for as long as it takes, until you tell us you don't want us to do it anymore. So upsy daisy! Now who's the cute little minority? Who is it? Is it you? Is it you? Yes, it is! Yes, it is!
Before reading on, therefore, repeat after me: There's no such thing as black people. There's no such thing as white people. There's no such thing as brown people. There's no such thing as yellow people. Human populations vary subtly and continuously from one geographic region to another, and they have done so for millennia, and the color-coded divisions imagined by 18th-century Europeans correspond with no consistent biological fault lines.
According to Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion, Michigan's affirmative action program serves "a compelling state interest" by promoting academic diversity. But whose interest, specifically? Certainly not the Asian or Jewish or Irish or Italian kids who need to achieve higher grade point averages and test scores in direct proportion to how much the bar is lowered for black and Hispanic applicants. To guard against this objection, O'Connor insists: "The program must remain flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant's race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application." Treat everyone equally, in other words, and factor in race afterwards. Real world experience with affirmative action, however, has shown individual evaluations will not accomplish the goal of diversity. It takes more than a little subjective goosing at the end of the process to achieve the desired racial balances.
For example, researchers William Bowen and Derek Bok compiled a database of 45,000 students attending 28 highly selective universities committed to affirmative action between 1976 and 1989. Bowen and Bok found that the average SAT score for black admits was 1157; for whites the average was 1331. Not surprisingly, the mean GPA for black students was in the bottom quarter of their classes, and the dropout rate among blacks was 78 percent higher than among whites. Since the schools in the study were bending over backwards to recruit black students, it strains credibility to blame their poor performance on systematic racism. The far likelier explanation is that the black students were unprepared for the rigors of the work at elite universities and would have been better served at second-tier schools -- as indicated by their test scores.
The Bowen and Bok study suggests that affirmative action programs are, at best, a mixed blessing for students admitted by lower standards -- even aside from the subtle but undeniable stigma that attaches to their accomplishments thereafter. Given that affirmative action patently harms non-minority (or wrong minority) students, what is the "compelling state interest" in utilizing it to achieve racial diversity? Does diversity set as its goal the gathering together of different ideological perspectives? If so, it depends on the premise that blacks think like blacks, that whites think like whites, and so on -- which would be distasteful even if race were a logically consistent classification. (If bringing together different ideological perspectives constitutes a compelling state interest, colleges nationwide should be busy recruiting conservative kids to counter the knee-jerk leftism that dominates American campus politics.)
Surely, it cannot be that the state's compelling interest in diversity is aesthetic -- i.e., the sight of marginally darker faces on college registration lines. If this is the case, however, the counter-aesthetic should also be kept in mind: the sight of a disproportionate number of darker faces lining up for remedial courses, tutoring hours and counseling services, the cost of which may in turn require cutbacks in other academic areas. For this is indeed the reality. Once you commit to taking in under-prepared students, it becomes unethical to abandon them. You owe them a support system.
In the final analysis, affirmative action in college admissions serves two main constituencies. The first constituency is black people -- not all black people, and least of all black students, but that substantial segment of the black population who habitually gauge their black authenticity by their perception of being oppressed; such oppression is a condition contrary to fact, but infantilizing remedies like affirmative action seem to confirm its reality. The second constituency served by affirmative action programs is guilt-ridden white people because, to put the matter bluntly, infantilizing blacks makes them feel noble: Sure, our ancestors were mean, vicious oppressors of dark-skinned people. But look at us! We rescue them!
Whether these dual catharses add up to "a compelling state interest" is a question we must all wrestle with now.
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