Now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear two cases regarding race-based preferences exercised by the University of Michigan, I thought I would restate some thoughts I expressed on the subject in early September, shortly after I joined Power Line. My excuses for presenting old material are: (1) most of our readers have joined us since early September and (2) I’m too tired to post anything original right now.
I was responding to a thoughtful comment from the Rocket Prof 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 agreed with that sentiment, but suggested that the racial preferences being doled out by college administrators have little to do with promoting “dissimilarity among students” and that, if they were based on that goal, extreme examples of favoritism would be rare.
I continued as follows: 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 [here I admit that I relied on an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by two University of Michigan administrators, rather than the record in the lawsuit, which I have not reviewed]. 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. But Michigan was insisting on the right to grant preferences to the point that African-Americans would make up more than ten percent of the entering class [again I was relying on information extrinsic to the record in the lawsuit]. Why? Because it was seeking proportional representation, not diversity.
I then recalled that, when affirmative action began at colleges, the rational was not “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 more about discovering similarities than 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 permanence, 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. And, as noted above, it does seem to contain a germ of truth. Third, the diversity rationale has a more politically correct ring. It sounded too patronizing — too much lilke a form of welfare — to suggest that colleges were doing blacks a favor by admitting them despite a relative lack of credentials. Much better to say, in effect, that the blacks 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 a basis 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 colleges 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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