Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Under the cover of plague and riots, the California Legislature is proposing a November ballot measure that would undo Proposition 209, which in 1996 banned the use of race and sex in university admissions, hiring, and state agency contracts. If the measure passes, the state will return to the days of rank discrimination and mismatching minority applicants with universities, setting them up for failure.
Like the current riots, the restoration of affirmative action will empower illiberal identity politics and the victim-narratives they reflect.
Proponents of undoing 209, of course, trot out melodramas of devastated black and Latino applicants and their shattered dreams. In truth, ending affirmative action did not stop protected applicants from going to college. It stopped the flagship campuses Cal Berkeley and UCLA from skimming minority candidates who were not prepared for the greater rigor of those two universities. Now they attended less prestigious campuses like Riverside or Merced, for which they are better qualified based on their academic record and test scores––exactly what happens with Caucasians, who now comprise, by the way, only one-fifth of U.C. students. And despite the predictions of Armaggedon for minority students, their performance has improved since Prop 209, because they no longer are “mismatched” to universities, as Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. document in their 2012 book Mismatch. Minority graduation rates, grade-point averages, and majors in science or engineering all have increased after 209.
Moreover, since space is finite in college classrooms, privileging one group comes at the expense of another. Highly qualified Asian-American applicants have been serially discriminated against by affirmative action protocols that favor blacks and Latinos whatever their socio-economic profile. For example, a black or Hispanic applicant on average is granted de facto a bonus of 300 points on their SAT scores compared to an Asian student. That’s why an early attempt to eliminate Prop 209 in 2014 was defeated with the help of Asian-American lobbying.
Affirmative action also ignores economic status, and the benefits poor or lower-class students might bring to middle and upper-class institutions. As a result, a black or Latino from the middle or upper classes will be privileged over an equivalently or even more highly qualified working class or poor white applicant. Indeed, in the oral arguments during the first Fischer vs. University of Texas case, the university’s lawyer explicitly said that a black applicant from a privileged background would add more “diversity” to the university than a lower-class white would. Maybe that’s why poor minority students—and poor white students, for that matter—are scarce on university campuses. At the 200 most selective universities, only 5 percent come from the bottom 25 percent of the income scale.
Bringing back affirmative action, then, has nothing to do with improving access and outcomes for minority students, or providing the alleged pedagogical boons that will accrue to other students from “diversity.” Nor is it about real diversity. The “diversity” higher education touts is an empty concept invented and legitimized in law by the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court decision, which has provided the precedent for subsequent challenges to affirmative action such as Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003), Schuette vs. Coalitions to Defend Affirmative Action (2013) and the two Fisher vs. University of Texas cases (2013, 2016). Bakke legitimized race-based admission criteria as fulfilling a “compelling” government interest in promoting “diversity.” As Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote in Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in Grutter articulated the fatal flaw of this argument: the “refusal to define rigorously the broad state interest” served by diversity. Nearly two decades later, there still remains a dearth of empirical evidence that shows the assumed “educational benefits” that serve an equally vague “broad state interest.” Nor has anyone even defined “diversity” rigorously. Today “diversity” is a crude term predicated on superficial physical traits and differences, many based on stereotypes once indulged by segregationists. But even that “diversity” fails, since some ethnic groups are privileged over others. Less politically connected or useful groups don’t count when the university touts its “commitment to diversity.”
Armenians, for example, were subjected to genocide in Turkey, and those who immigrated to America in the early 20th century were discriminated against in California for decades. Real estate covenants in many neighborhoods excluded Armenians along with blacks and Mexicans. They have a distinct faith and culture, folkways and cuisine that would culturally enrich a “diverse” university. But Armenians are not considered to be as “diverse” as a black dentist’s son who grew up in Menlo Park and is as American as his pasty neighbor.
Many other ethnic groups, such as Portuguese, Italians, Sikhs, or Slavs, likewise are all lumped together into the meaningless category “white.” No matter how poor or underprivileged they are, no matter how long their history of exclusion and discrimination may be, no matter how diverse their mores, faiths, customs, and folkways, they are all deemed irrelevant for increasing campus “diversity” and providing their classmates with “educational benefits.”
Even more important, political ideas and religious faith are important components of people’s distinct identities and any meaningful diversity. Thus both would enrich the university. But they are ignored by the more superficial and politicized “diversity.” For example, most universities today are secular and philosophically materialist, and so could use the intellectual diversity that more religious believers might bring to the student body. Wouldn’t their perspectives and experiences bring “educational benefits” to the classroom, providing alternative points of view that might enrich the learning experience of their classmates?
Or, given that faculties are overwhelmingly progressive, a concern with genuine diversity surely would include the recruitment of conservative students and professors. But the admissions officers at elite colleges and universities are not worried about having too few Christians or Republicans. Indeed, a sure-fire way for a job candidate to be blacklisted in academia is to profess during his interview any belief remotely associated with conservativism or Christianity. The failure to take into account a diversity of minds undermines the core principle of a liberal education––what Matthew Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects” without being limited by politics, received wisdom, or ideological prejudices.
Affirmative action, then, violates the Civil Rights Act ban on discrimination on the basis race by invoking a specious “compelling state interest” whose benefits cannot be demonstrated empirically. It is not about celebrating the complex and multilayered actual diversity of the United States and its origins in the wildly various peoples, mores, folkways, and religions that comprised the plures from which the political unum was created.
So what is affirmative action really about? Not true diversity, but politics–– the illiberal identity politics of multiculturalism. Its “diversity” includes only selected victims of Western and American historical crimes: slavery, legal discrimination, imperialism, colonialism, racism, economic oppression, etc. And these victims are owed reparations like racial set-asides, curricula, programs, deference, and political leverage as compensation for those crimes.
But what if improvements have eliminated the blatant, violent manifestations of racism from the Jim Crow era of legal segregation? Or produced more wealth so widely distributed that it has in effect eliminated the sorts of poverty that existed as late as the 1950s? Then the grievance-mongers will redefine the crisis by inventing unproven dysfunctions like “income inequality,” or police murders of blacks fostered by “systemic racism.” No matter that reams of data have exposed that canard. When the narrative becomes fact, print the narrative.
Finally, identity politics is at heart a Marxoid tool for attacking liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. Its narrative of selected victims of “oppression” requires grievances like “racism” to be the pretexts for its calls to change the Constitutional order and its Bill of Rights, and for weakening our free-market capitalist economy. Here we see the link between affirmative action and the current protests, looting, and vandalism roiling our cities. Both phenomena are founded on grievance; both ignore the improvements in everybody’s lives, including blacks’, by evoking an imagined “systemic racism,” “implicit bias,” or subjective “microaggressions” that camouflage that improvement; and both attack our unalienable rights like freedom of speech, under assault from political correctness and the “cancel culture” evident in the recent New York Times’ groveling apology to its callow millennial staffers for printing an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton.
This illiberal political narrative has for decades damaged our universities and threatened our rights. California’s Proposition 209 was a rare pushback against these illiberal trends, just as the election of Donald Trump has slowed down Obama’s drive to “fundamentally transform” our country into an illiberal collectivist technocracy. In November, America will vote whether or not to continue Trump’s restoration of America’s political heritage of individual freedom and rights. Here in California, we’ll have an opportunity to confirm our earlier rejection of group privileges and rights. Both elections will determine what we will be: Free and sovereign citizens, or dependent wards of the technocratic elite.
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