Affirmative Action Thoughts in an Inelegant List Format
I’m still swamped with the move and book stuff, so please let me lay out my position here with far fewer citations than I would usually provide.
All things being equal, I’m fine with some race-conscious admissions in our actually-existing university system, though under a theory of reparations for slavery, not the bizarre jerry-rigged “diversity” sham.
All things are not equal, however - it’s simply not disputable that the system as it exists acts as a massive enterprise in systemic discrimination against Asian applicants to elite colleges. If we’re going to have this conversation, I insist we have it honestly. And the honest truth is that it’s way, way harder for Asian students to get into elite institutions than those from other racial categories. Which is racial discrimination. Period.
This framing enrages people, but this is very much a first-world problem: elite colleges are a tiny part of the overall college landscape, by number of institutions and especially by number of students; a majority of Americans still don’t have a college degree; the students of color who get into elite colleges are a tiny sliver of the overall population of people of color and are not remotely representative of that population.
I am much, much more worried for the vast number of Black people who don’t even apply to college than I am about a theoretical Black student who would get into Harvard with a racial preference but wouldn’t without. The former is in worse shape by absolutely any metric. This whole conversation rests on weird priorities.
It’s true that white and Asian students who lose out in admissions at Harvard because a diversity applicant takes “their spot” will go to Amherst or Brown and be fine. But that’s also true of the students who get diversity spots at Harvard; a Black or Hispanic kid who just misses out at Harvard will be able to choose from dozens of elite schools that want them. Again, this is a first-world problem.
Seats at American colleges and universities are not scarce goods, in general. The vast majority of American colleges accept more students than they reject. A huge number take essentially every student that applies. This was true even before the enrollment crisis and is even more true now. If a teenager has a high school diploma and can cut a tuition check or sign a promissory note, they can go to college. This whole conversation is about a fringe of a fringe.
Individual ability rules. I would much, much rather be a 120-IQ graduate of a nondescript state school than a 100-IQ graduate of an Ivy League school.
Meanwhile, it remains the case that by every outward appearance, actually-existing affirmative action tends to result in a ton of wealthy children of recent African, Caribbean, and Latin American immigrants getting acceptance letters, rather than poor Hispanic kids from the barrio or American-born descendants of African slaves. The default Harvard diversity pick appears to be the child of a rich Nigerian cardiologist, not a poor kid from public schools in Baltimore. I say “appears to be” because these schools won’t open their books and let us know for sure. Now, why do you think they would play their cards so close to the vest, do you think? Could it be that affirmative action is just another means through which elite schools identify wealthy families who are sure to donate? I’m thinking yes!
The colleges that want to are just going to engineer race preferences by other means, as the University of California has done. Like, obviously.
Legacies are at issue in an absolutely tiny number of colleges, and anyway, “this other thing is bad, therefore you can’t complain about this thing” is a weird, pointless diversion. Defend affirmative action on the merits. Yes, of course legacy admissions are ridiculous. But college admissions never existed to satisfy some ideal of perfect meritocracy. Trust me, if you are not a graduate of an elite college yourself, but you can cut a large check, you can get your kid into that college! Colleges admissions always existed to fulfill the needs of institutions that not only are filled with elites but are in the business of perpetuating the elite by their very nature. That’s why they were founded. It’s in their DNA. Stop taking their horseshit social justice rhetoric at face value. It just makes you look like a mark.
It remains profoundly weird that people who want to defend affirmative action can’t straightforwardly say what it does. Affirmative action is a system in which students of color who would not ordinarily gain entry to a given college are given a slot thanks to consideration of their racial background, on grounds of diversity or addressing systemic bias. But if you say “these college kids got in because of affirmative action,” that’s a horrible, racist thing to say. I can’t think of another progressive program where the defenders of that program have forbidden people from saying that the system is working as it is intended to work. Very strange.
It’s a truly bizarre thing, to look at elite college admissions, and say “this can be made equitable and egalitarian.” It can’t be. The whole system exists to create an elite! That’s the system’s most basic function! You have one hierarchy (college rankings and perceived exclusivity) that looks to another hierarchy (high school students with the best resume, whether earned, purchased, or stolen) to generate a third hierarchy (most elite college graduates) which places people in a fourth hierarchy (people with the most enviable, highest-paying jobs). This is not the world of actual social justice. Those two worlds have nothing to do with each other.
Which goes to a basic point nobody wants to grapple with: affirmative action deepens inequality within the Black community. It takes the winner class of Black America, the kinds of people who are worthy or near-worthy of admission to elite colleges, and helps them pull further away from the average Black person. This is undeniable, it’s inherent, and it’s immutable. Affirmative action will always serve the Black elite at the expense of the Black average, even while it also serves the Black elite at the expense of the white and Asian elite. The average Black American does not benefit from affirmative action in any way, shape, or form. I can’t think of a more obvious Band-aid of a racial justice program than affirmative action. How about we just cut Black people checks, instead of helping a tiny fraction of them climb the ladder so that they too can be opportunity-hoarding elites?
This all hangs on the basic broken thinking about education that I discussed in The Cult of Smart: we demand that our education system be both a ladder of success, a sorting system that creates a hierarchy of excellence, and a great equalizer, a way to make society more equitable. These are flatly contradictory purposes. They are directly antagonistic to each other. If you say “this student did better than this one,” congratulations, you are increasing the amount of inequality in the universe. If our educational systems create a performance hierarchy and say that some students are better than others, that inherently deepens inequality; if our educational system were to create perfect equality between students, it would have no ability to distinguish good students from bad. A lot of left-leaning people say, well, the equality-producing function is the more noble one, let’s go with that. But this falls apart with even minimal thinking: with no ability to identify better and worse, our education system has no ability to hand out relative reward. And it’s that function of handing out relative reward that creates, for example, the college wage premium, which is what so many people are interested in sharing more equitably in the first place. But the premium only exists because not everyone has a college degree; if everyone had one, the supply would be dramatically expanded, and the value would dramatically drop. This tension between the desire to make college universal and the understanding that making something universal destroys its value haunts left thinking on education.
Look, think about it this way. Why do we have affirmative action? Why do people want Black and Hispanic kids to go to elite colleges? They want Black and Hispanic kids to go to elite colleges so that they can go on to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, Senators, and so on. But what is the mechanism through which elite colleges produce doctors, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and Senators? By being elite! Which is to say, by being exclusive. It’s rare to have a Harvard diploma, so grad schools and employers covet that status. A naive person might say, hey, if going to Harvard is so helpful, we’ll let everyone into Harvard! We’ll just throw open the doors to everyone! But of course we all understand that that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because people only want to go to Harvard because not a lot of people can go to Harvard, or to Ivy League schools in general, or to elite schools in general. (The people who are mad about who Harvard admits, whether affirmative action proponents or affirmative action critics, don’t want Harvard to let in everyone - what would be the point of Harvard?) And so we find ourselves in a debate with a ton of soaring rhetoric about egalitarianism and equality, but which fundamentally revolves around access to a privilege that everyone acknowledges has value only if it remains scarce. This is the point I’ve been making for years and years about education. The social justice function was awkwardly grafted onto formal schooling in the 20th century in an effort to get society to pay for that schooling. But it’s never made sense, and affirmative action shows why.
All of that said, again, if the argument is just that elite college admissions exists, those schools have significant benefits for the tiny percentage of Americans who attend them, and we want more Black and brown faces in those institutions, I don’t really have an issue with that logic. But there are losers on the other side of that equation, and for any individual who loses out on their dream school because they’re white or Asian, that really sucks. You can’t do this work without being willing to acknowledge that there are people with legitimate points of view on the other side of these zero-sum decisions. And they are zero-sum. Inevitably. Always.
Affirmative action will always be an emotionally-charged issue, especially for a media class that comes overwhelmingly from elite colleges. For the vast majority of Americans, of any race, it’s an irrelevant sideshow.