Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion con­tro­versy mak­ing come­back

Woonsocket Call - - OPINION - By ME­GAN McARDLE The Wash­ing­ton Post Me­gan McArdle is a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist.

Brett Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court has stirred plenty of de­bate about the fate of Roe v. Wade. But there is an­other land­mark case that is apt to trou­ble the court in com­ing years: Re­gents of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia v. Bakke. The 1978 rul­ing struck down ex­plicit quo­tas for col­lege and grad­u­ate school ad­mis­sions, while al­low­ing univer­si­ties to con­sider race as a “plus fac­tor” to fos­ter cam­pus di­ver­sity.

Bakke is ar­guably the rea­son dis­cus­sions about racial pref­er­ences are so fraught and of­ten­times so con­fused. Or, as Columbia Univer­sity lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor John McWhorter says, the dis­cus­sions are “coded.” We talk about “plus fac­tors” when we mean low­er­ing the qual­i­fy­ing stan­dards for black and Latino stu­dents; we talk about “di­ver­sity” when we’re re­ally try­ing to right past and present wrongs.

Bakke was a kludge. The Con­sti­tu­tion forbids dis­crim­i­nat­ing by race, even in a good cause, but stark racial gaps were hard to close with­out it. So we got a loop­hole that tac­itly per­mit­ted semi-quo­tas with­out of­fi­cially en­dors­ing them. Con­ser­va­tives com­plained about the hypocrisy, but the al­ter­na­tive, bar­ring in­sti­tu­tions from rec­ti­fy­ing the ef­fects of past dis­crim­i­na­tion, would have been morally ques­tion­able and po­lit­i­cally dis­as­trous.

But it’s left us with what Har­vard Law pro­fes­sor Jean­nie Suk Gersen calls an “an­a­lytic con­fu­sion.” Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, she says, “has to do with groups that have been wronged and held back, and that we’re go­ing to try to fight against it by do­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. You can have that con­ver­sa­tion with­out any re­course to di­ver­sity.”

McWhorter is black and sup­ports end- ing race-based af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, re­plac­ing it with a regime fo­cused on eco­nomic dis­ad­van­tage. Gersen is Asian-Amer­i­can and sup­ports af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion for groups that are strug­gling but also pos­si­bly a broader racial-bal­anc­ing regime that might put Asian-Amer­i­can stu­dents at a dis­ad­van­tage. They both are thus ar­gu­ing against what might ap­pear to be their nar­row per­sonal in­ter­est. But far more in­ter­est­ing is their will­ing­ness to do what Amer­ica largely won’t: speak frankly about the dif­fi­cult trade-offs in­volved in al­lo­cat­ing a lim­ited num­ber of slots at se­lec­tive schools.

Us­ing di­ver­sity as a code for rec­ti­fy­ing the racial gaps of 1978 worked, if in­el­e­gantly. But Bakke was cus­tom-built for an era when racial jus­tice was largely a mat­ter of black and white. Now the code is break­ing down in a more di­verse United States where at least some groups out­per­form their priv­i­leged white neigh­bors in ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment.

Thus, the an­a­lytic con­fu­sion Gersen iden­ti­fied. “Di­ver­sity” is closer in ac­tual mean­ing to “racial bal­anc­ing” than to “rec­ti­fy­ing past in­jus­tice,” but in def­er­ence to the Supreme Court, we’ve blurred the dis­tinc­tion. Now, how­ever, we’re be­ing forced to con­front the way racial bal­anc­ing en­cour­ages anti-Asian dis­crim­i­na­tion. Some un­blur­ring is in or­der.

Stripped of eu­phemism, racial bal­anc­ing doesn’t look good. And yet it does have some merit: Elite in­sti­tu­tions that sys­tem­at­i­cally and markedly dif­fer from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion cre­ate a gap­ing so­cial wound that never heals. That said, pur­su­ing racial bal­ance zeal­ously would mean ei­ther a po­lit­i­cally un­palat­able com­mit­ment to white un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion or con­tin­ued dis­crim­i­na­tion against Asian-Amer­i­can stu­dents. It would also mean ad­mit­ting de­feat in the bat­tle for racial equal­ity, ac­cept­ing achieve­ment gaps as per­ma­nent.

McWhorter resists that ac­cep­tance. Race-based af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion was jus­ti­fied in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of seg­re­ga­tion, he says, but to­day it is es­sen­tially racist to ar­gue that the grow­ing num­ber of mid­dle-class blacks are in­ca­pable of com­pet­ing with­out pref­er­ences. Those who are still se­ri­ously dis­ad­van­taged by Amer­ica’s legacy of racial op­pres­sion should be helped with eco­nom­i­cally fo­cused af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, he says. Ev­ery­one else should com­pete on equal terms. Yet his pre­scrip­tion would be fraught: Gersen notes that “you’re not go­ing to get racial di­ver­sity to the ex­tent that peo­ple who care about that would find sat­is­fac­tory.”

McWhorter coun­ters that the pref­er­ences them­selves “tend to pre­serve that lower record of achieve­ment:” “I thought I didn’t have to work as hard as the kids at my Quaker school. And I didn’t.” This trans­lates, he says, into a per­sis­tent sus­pi­cion that blacks in academia don’t re­ally be­long there.

“One thing that’s never dis­cussed is that you don’t ap­ply for af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion,” he says. “I’m of­ten asked, ‘Don’t you ben­e­fit from it?’ Yes. You can’t es­cape it. It was an in­sult by the time I was about 20. I don’t want the in­sult.”

I pre­fer McWhorter’s op­ti­mistic vi­sion of race re­la­tions, while wor­ry­ing that Gersen’s may be more re­al­is­tic and po­lit­i­cally palat­able. That will leave our new jus­tice with an un­easy choice as the court steers us into an Amer­ica where race is no longer a sim­ple mat­ter of black and white. But which­ever you pre­fer, and which­ever he chooses, it will be much eas­ier to nav­i­gate with­out a fog of eu­phemism cloud­ing his view.

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