Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 03, 2003
POLITICS/LAW: Boddie on Preferences
On Thursday, Slate ran a piece by Elise Boddie, a former Harvard Law classmate of mine, attacking President Bush's position on affirmative action. There are a few decent points here, but also several crucial fallacies. Let's walk through:
Bush still professes to favor racial diversity, but he opposes the use of race to create it. Sort of like saying that you like meatloaf but prefer preparing it without hamburger.
This does capture the mealy-mouthed nature of Bush's support for racial "diversity" as a permissible goal of a taxpayer-supported insitutions.
Bush claims there is another way, under his "colorblind" "affirmative access" proposal. This refers to the law adopted by Texas in the aftermath of the 1996 court ruling in Hopwood v. Texas abolishing race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas. Similar versions have been enacted by California and Florida. The Texas law mandates the admission to university of all high-school seniors graduating in the top 10 percent of their class; California and Florida give a boost to the top 4 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Many commentators have already pointed out the glaring problems with these percentage plans—not the least of which is that their success in creating racially diverse student bodies at the college level depends in significant part on the continued racial segregation of the state's high schools. They also don't affect admissions in private universities or in graduate or professional schools; and, in California, there is no guarantee of admission to the state's flagship institutions. There is some indication that minority first-year admissions at Texas universities have increased under the percentage plan, following the post-Hopwood plunge. But such admissions have yet to reach the heights achieved in the years prior to Hopwood, and at least some of the increase is due to a rising college-age black and Latino population in Texas.
First of all, arguments that assume that the sole end goal of admissions policies should be to increase the proportion of students "of color" -- on a zero-sum basis -- are deeply problematic. Boddie then goes on to say that preferences aren't so bad because the number of white students who lose out isn't that high, although, presumably, it would rise in the near future "due to a rising college-age black and Latino population" in places like Texas.
Second, to object to the public university plans on the grounds that they assume large racial disproportion in high schools . . . well, yes. Racial disproportion -- segregation, if you want to call it that, although it's principally caused by housing patterns - is precisely what supports the argument that there's any need for affirmative action in the 21st century at all. African-American students who attend top high schools are hardly the oppressed and downtrodden in need of a hand, after all. The "percentage plans" are a Band-Aid aimed directly at the problem of students trapped in bad schools, and are designed to ensure that the best students from those schools get preferential treatment. It's still open to fair question whether this is in their best interests -- whether some students are getting promoted beyond what they've been academically prepared for -- but it's at least a solution that's designed to be proportionate to the problem.
[W]hile most of the public scrutiny concerning affirmative action has been on the qualifications of African-American and Latino students admitted to Michigan, it is scarcely mentioned that other white students are also admitted with SAT scores or GPAs lower than those of the plaintiffs (and lower than those of rejected minority applicants). Nor is much attention paid to the other racialized dimensions of Michigan's admissions policy that favor whites. The preference given to the children of alumni (including, incidentally, Patrick Hamacher, one of the plaintiffs challenging Michigan) disproportionately benefits whites, as does the enhancement given for candidates from Michigan's predominantly white Upper Peninsula, and the points awarded based on the quality of the candidate's high school and curriculum.
Well, the Upper Peninsula plan seems to be basically another form of the percentage plans, and it's presumably driven by in-state politics, which is a hazard of any public university. I would tend to agree that alumni preferences should be eliminated in public universities, however; they don't serve any academic purpose and they do institutionalize the past racial and other makeup of the student body. The main justification for such preferences in private colleges -- and I'm somewhat skeptical there as well -- is that alumni preferences help build loyalties that are essential to fundraising. Even if you buy that argument, it loses support when the college is financed by the state.
Opponents of affirmative action have spent the past two weeks repeating what seems to be their main, patronizing argument: that race-neutral admissions are better for racial minorities because affirmative action stigmatizes its beneficiaries as inferior (while at the same time denying their own agency in perpetuating such stereotypes). But the "stigma" is one-sided. It isn't applied to legacy admits; and it isn't applied to white Anglo Saxon Protestant men admitted to universities before the 1970s. Until affirmative action kicked in, these groups had a virtual lock on admissions at selective institutions because white women, blacks, Asians, and Latinos were either excluded from selective institutions altogether or were admitted in token numbers. Yet one never hears that this de facto affirmative action has "stigmatized" white males.
A funny thing about this argument is that it ignores the scorn usually heaped on George W. Bush for being a guy who would never have gotten into Yale without alumni preferences (see this Michael Kinsley article for a sample); conservatives tend to hurl the same stuff at Ted Kennedy. Of course, it may be unfair, but the main reason the stigma isn't more prominent is that you can't tell someone is a child of alumni just by looking at them. Still, I think most people knew some people in college who were clearly there just because their parents got them in. Also, go to any Ivy League campus and try to talk up a classical education in the Western canon and tell me there's no stigma attached to the writers for being dead white males . . .
In any event, this is a classic example of the false dichotomy set up by proponents of preferences -- between rich old-money WASPs and poor African-Americans. Meanwhile, your typical middle-class/working-class white kids, whose parents and grandparents got shut out of the old order, get told "meet the new privileges, same as the old privileges." And Jews and Asians need not apply.
Studies repeatedly document the continued pervasiveness of discrimination in housing, employment, health care, and in the criminal justice system, and the persistence of racial segregation in elementary and secondary education. President Bush and others who oppose affirmative action may well preach "colorblindness," but really they are just willfully blind to the continuing relevance of race.
Well, so make the case that "the continuing relevance of race" in those other areas is a bad thing - don't celebrate it as an excuse to give upper-middle-class African-American kids a leg up in admission to elite colleges.