My musings on racial preferences

My musings on racial preferences at Wesleyan and elsewhere prompted an e-mail from one of Rocket Man’s brothers, a college professor. His thoughtful response included the observation that “most academics, even if they are appalled by extreme examples of favoritism, will agree that some dissimilarity among students is a good thing and spurs learning all around.”
I agree with this consensus, but submit that the racial preferences being doled out today by college administrators have little to do with promoting diversity in the sense of “dissimilarity among students.” Indeed, if diversity were the true goal, extreme examples of favoritism would rarely occur. The diversity rationale has always seemed suspicious coming from colleges that tend to peddle a sterile liberal orthodoxy. But I didn’t fully appreciate the pretextual nature of the diversity rationale until I started following the litigation over the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions preferences. Michigan argued that, without racial preferences, it would admit a freshman class in which African-Americans made up only about five percent. But for a school the size of Michigan, this represents a large number, surely enough African-Americans to provide diversity in the normal sense of enabling students to get to know “dissimilar” kids. In both my college and law school, the numbers (both absolute and in percentage terms) were much smaller, yet there was no problem obtaining this benefit of diversity. But Michigan was insisting on its right to grant preferences to the point that African-Americans would make up more than ten percent of the entering class. Why? Because its real goal was not diversity; it was proportional representation.
I then recalled that, when big-time affirmative action began at colleges, the rationale was never “diversity.” Rather, the idea was to lend a helping hand to the victims of past injustice, whether by the institution itself or by society. In the 1960s, this was a far more meaningful argument than “diversity.” In fact, a diversity rationale, had it occurred to anyone, would have sounded a discordant note in that innocent time when the civil rights movement was about discovering similarities, not differences.
Over the years, however, the “remedial” argument began to lose both its force and its appeal. This happened, I think, for several reasons. First, preferences were supposed to be a temporary remedy, not a permanent entitlement. But instead of withering away, they became more pronounced and ingrained. Second, the notion that members of a group are entitled to preferences due to past injustices is a value judgment that anyone can question. And, because the preference regime was hardening into a state of permanance, it was increasingly being questioned. On the other hand, an educator’s view that diversity promotes learning sounds like a scientific fact that neither the public, nor even a court, has the expertise to question. It is harder to attack, in part because it does contain that grain of truth. Third, the diversity rationale has a more politically correct ring. It sounded too patonizing –too much like a form of welfare — to suggest that colleges were doing minorities a favor by admitting them despite a relative lack of credentials. Much better to say, in effect, that the minorities were actually conferring a benefit on the college (and especially its white students) by providing a diverse learning experience. Much better to view skin color as a credential, rather than as grounds for trumping credentials. And, of course, the diversity rationale is forever. It can justify preferences for as long as colleges want to serve them up.
If I am right, then, the excesses of racial preferences at colleges are not the result of a valid rationale — diversity — run amuck. Instead, they occur because diversity is not the real issue. Stated most generously, the real issue is the desire of college administrators to hand out justice in an unjust world. Unfortunately, their justice is “social’ or “group” justice, largely an oxymoron. The casualty is individual justice, the truest kind.


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