A Desperate Defense of Affirmative Action

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The American Scholar is the official journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society — the college honorary society– and like The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, its focus is highbrow and its writing quality generally of a high order.  Also like the Times and the NYRB, when dealing with current political controversies it leans predictably to the left.

This is prominently on display in its Winter 2011 issue, which features a cover story titled “Affirmative Action’s Last Chance,” written by former Wesleyan University and Emory president William M. Chace. The article is an impassioned call for private universities, in the face of the increasingly successful ballot initiatives restricting race preferences at public colleges and universities, to step up to the plate and continue or expand their own programs of special admissions for blacks and other targeted minorities.  Affirmative action’s “last chance,” Chace says, is for private institutions like Wesleyan and Emory to ignore opinion polls and ballot initiatives and do what is right by aggressively enrolling underrepresented minorities, who, it is said, now find it much harder to gain admission to state universities in places like California, Michigan, Florida and a growing number of other states.  “Opposition to affirmative action has drastically reduced minority enrollment at public universities,” the article’s introductory blurb begins. “Private institutions have the power and the responsibility to reverse the trend.”
Chace’s article is worth considering at some length. It reflects better than anything else I have read in recent years the troubled state in which racial preference supporters find themselves as they desperately try to hang on to policies that continue to face great public opposition and which they have reason to suspect have led to many of the serious difficulties and unintended consequences that their critics always predicted.  Chace begins his article with the oft-quoted line from the commencement address President Johnson delivered at Howard University in June of 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others.'”

LBJ almost certainly intended his "hobbled by chains" speech as a call for much more extensive, means-tested Great Society programs rather than racial preferences. Three months after the Howard address Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 that required, in the strictest of color-blind fashion, that all contractors doing business with the federal government "ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." Yet Chace, like many others, construes Johnson's speech as a call for racial preferences in higher education and elsewhere.  The rationale for preferences is thus seen as restorative justice for victims of past racial oppression who currently suffer from its effects in the form of poverty, joblessness, and educational deprivation.  By beginning his article with Johnson's "hobbled by chains" speech, Chace clearly wants to create sympathy for current racial preference policies in university admissions, and the theme of restorative justice assumes a powerful background presence throughout his article.  Racial preference policies are defended, in part, as a necessary means of helping the impoverished and exploited descendants of American slaves.

But Chace is too aware of how current racial preference policies actually work in practice to let the matter be decided solely by the "hobbled by chains" rationale.  While LBJ's Howard speech is intended to set the moral tone for Chace's affirmative action defense, Chace is forced to acknowledge that preference policies in higher education rarely help the truly disadvantaged among the descendants of the Southern slave population. To the contrary, many of the recipients of racial preferences, Chace points out, are anything but impoverished or likely sufferers from ongoing racism or discrimination.  And some, including most Hispanics, are recent immigrants, who were never enslaved in the United States and can hardly claim special treatment on restitution grounds.  The same can be said for the many black immigrants who are often out-competing the descendants of America's former slave population in gaining admission to the most selective colleges and universities. Chace writes on this:
Another reality is redefining and probably weakening the meaning of affirmative action. Although few schools publicize the fact, one of the central historic principles giving rise to affirmative action is being undermined.  President Johnson's speech assumed that affirmative action would help the descendants of former slaves (he made no mention of Hispanics).  That assumption from yesteryear is out of sync with today's realities.  Affirmative action more and more functions to open the campus not only to the descendants of former slaves but to black students with different cultural and political heritages.  Once championed, as in Johnson's speech, as a means of reparation or restitution, affirmative action now turns out to be helping hundreds and hundreds of young people who have suffered the wounds of old-fashioned American racism little or not at all.  More than a quarter of the black students enrolled at selective American colleges and Universities are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  African-American students born in the United States thus turn out to be more underrepresented (given their presence in the U.S. population) at selective colleges than one might imagine.  At some of the most exclusive institutions (Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania) no less than two-fifths of those admitted as 'black' are of immigrant origin.  Such facts, as they come into view, blunt the force of arguments favoring affirmative action.  … Restitution seems less and less in play.
The Real Problem of ‘Underrepresented’  Minorities
Chace also notes that African American males are increasingly in short supply on college campuses, and in recent years have been outnumbered by black females among graduates by a factor of two-to-one.  And he realizes that the educational problems of African American males reach deep into the structure of black families and black neighborhoods and are not likely to be ameliorated by racial preference policies at the college level. Noting that one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is either in jail or under some form of criminal justice supervision, he correctly points out that "no amount of affirmative action at either private or public colleges and universities will free these men from jail. Nor will affirmative action be able to reach into the homes, neighborhoods, and schools to rectify the distressing situations — poverty, drugs, families customarily without either husband or father — that … [have served such men] so badly.  Nothing that colleges and universities can do will be enough to rewrite the history of racial inequality that has, for decade after decade, poisoned this nation's history."           


Having thus undermined the hobbled-by-chains/restitution rationale for current racial preferences — preferences that benefit mainly black immigrants and female members of the African American middle class — one might expect Chace to play the diversity card in defense of affirmative action.  But he doesn't do this, at least not in the usual way defenders of racial preferences do.  American college campuses are clearly not the "white only" enclaves they used to be. "Diversity itself," he writes, "seems weaker and weaker as an argument for affirmative action when many campuses now appear, at least to the public at large, more diverse than ever before.  The increasing presence on campus of students from myriad ethnic groups (Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Iranian, and many others) and the consequent reduction of white students (witness student populations at the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, USC, Columbia, and other schools) undercut the notion that American higher education is still unfairly monochromatic."

If the hobbled-by-chains and the usual diversity rationale are jettisoned, what can be said in favor of affirmative action?  Chace develops his own novel "model commonwealth" justification for our current racial preference regime, which is hard to summarize largely because it is stated so imprecisely.  What he seems to mean by the demands for a model commonwealth is that colleges in America have a civic obligation, as part of their function within a democratic order, to represent on their campuses racial and ethnic groups in rough proportion to their proportion in the general population. Just as the House of Representatives represents the fifty states in proportion to their population, so institutions of higher learning, Chace seems to believe, should represent America's racial and ethnic groups according to a population-proportionality principle.  He doesn't try to defend this ideal so much as to assume that all democracy-loving people will find it self-evidently appealing.  So it is not enough to have large numbers of "people of color" on college campuses, Chace's reasoning goes, if the subgroups to which they belong are numerically under- or over-represented as a proportion of the general population.
Which brings us to the real problem of "underrepresented minorities" — one from which Chace to his credit doesn't flinch.  It is American blacks, and to a lesser extent Mexicans and other Hispanic groups, he says, who are simply not competitive with whites and Asians at the higher reaches of high school achievement. Chace reproduces aggregate data from the 2008 SAT exams indicating that while Asians averaged 537 on the reading, mathematics, and writing sections of the exam, and whites 528, Mexican Americans averaged only 455, and blacks only 427.  "For all their differences," Chace writes, "both critics and advocates acknowledge that some classes of students, particularly African-American and Hispanic, cannot gain admission to many colleges and universities solely on the basis of their academic preparation.  They need preferential treatment to enter the model commonwealth. With such dissimilar scores facing them over the years, admissions officers at colleges or universities have introduced handicapping measures in order to admit applicants with weaker scores.  Those measures have hardly been trivial."
Chace defends such racial handicapping and apparently believes there is nothing untoward about it, or that it should be looked upon as a temporary measure to be ended in the near future.  It's all for the good of the "model commonwealth," he says, and for the purpose of creating a more democratic society. 
The "Harvard or Hamburger-Flipper" Argument
Chace's essay represents one of the clearest instances I have ever encountered of what might be called "The Harvard or Hamburger-Flipper Confusion" (alternately: "The Yale-or-Jail Mistake").  Like other defenders of our current racial preference regime, Chace writes as if affirmative action policy is a means of getting more blacks enrolled in colleges and universities who otherwise would not be attending institutions of higher learning.  "The history of affirmative action," he writes, "includes the graduation of thousands of young men and women who otherwise would not have passed within the gates of a college or university.  Many of those graduates have gone on to professional careers where their success has helped to reinvigorate the American dream.  They have become physicians, diplomats, lawyers, Army officers, stockbrokers, journalists, high government officials, scientists, and business leaders." (emphasis added)

image004 (2).jpgWithout our racial preference policies, he implies, these future lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, journalists and the like might never have gone to college and might have wound up as unskilled laborers, hamburger flippers, truck drivers — maybe even jailbirds.  But these are absurd conclusions.  What our current racial preference policies do is ratchet upward the better-scoring black (and to a lesser extent Hispanic) college applicants into institutions higher on the selectivity scale than those they would have gotten into had they been white or Asian. The difference is always a question of which college a black or Hispanic high school graduate gets accepted to, not whether the high school grad gets accepted to college. It's never "Yale or Jail" — there are colleges for high school graduates of every achievement level. Chace ignores this elementary fact and acts as if ending racial preferences would prevent many black and Hispanic high school students from going to college.

Studies show that only the top quarter or so of American colleges grant preferences based on race (the remaining three-quarters, including all of the community colleges, have enrollment standards so easy to meet that they accept most students who apply to them). What this means is that virtually all black and Hispanic students in the past who have received affirmative action boosts in admissions to four-year colleges could have gained acceptance, had there been no racial preferences, to many hundreds of four-year colleges as well as to any of the more then one-thousand two-year colleges.
One can think of the undergraduate institutions in America as constituting an eight-tiered sliding scale of selectivity. (The number of tiers into which the selectivity range is divided is arbitrary, but eight does full justice to the actual perceived differences between institutions.)  At the very highest level — the Tier-1 schools — SAT scores of entering students average around 750 (MIT, Harvard, Stanford). In descending order then, we have the Tier-2 schools, with 700 SAT averages (Cornell, Brown, Georgetown); Tier-3s with 650 SATs (Lehigh, Rochester, Bucknell); Tier-4s with 600 SATs (Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia Tech); Tier-5s with 550 SATs (University of Arizona, Washington State University, University of New Hampshire); Tier-6s with 500 SATs (San Diego State University, East Carolina University, Kennesaw State); Tier-7s with 450 SATs (University of Bridgeport, William Penn University, Long Island University); and Tier-8s with 400 SATs and often open-enrollment policies (North Carolina Central University, South Carolina State, Prairie View A&M, and most of the more than one-thousand community colleges). 
Racial preferences are almost exclusively confined to schools at the Tier-5 level and above, and what these preferences mean is that if you are black or Hispanic you effectively get a one- or two-tier bonus card that enables you to attend an institution one or two levels above what a similarly qualified white or Asian student would attend. Such bonus cards do nothing to increase the total number of blacks or Hispanics attending institutions of higher learning in America. And there is strong reason to believe that they encourage indolence among black and Hispanic high school students who know that their race or ethnicity can make up for half-hearted performance.  In mixed-race high schools throughout the U.S., the black and Hispanic students know full well that they don't have to achieve at nearly the same level as their white and Asian classmates to get into the same competitive colleges as those classmates. And the same dynamic is at work for those black and Hispanic students once they get into college since they know that when they apply to graduate or professional schools, or seek jobs in the corporate sector, they will get the same boost over whites and Asians that they got previously in transitioning out of high school.  The much talked about "underperformace problem" (black students in college get substantially lower grades when matched with white and Asian students with similar SAT scores and high school GPAs) may be baffling to affirmative action supporters, but to anyone else with a modicum of common sense it is hardly puzzling. 
The Zero-Sum Problem
Like other supporters of our current racial preference regime Chace believes that affirmative action policies help to build a stronger, more democratic society by bringing together people of diverse races and ethnicities.  His "model commonwealth," based on proportional representation of ethno-racial groups, requires the cultivation of communal learning experience that is only possible, he believes, when there are blacks and Hispanics on college campuses roughly in proportion to their numbers in the general population.  But even if one doesn't consider this idea dubious on its very face — and indeed, a dangerous retreat into ethno-racial tribal consciousness and group-against-group hostility — Chace, like many other supporters of affirmative action, completely ignores the zero-sum problem. 
Simply stated it goes like this: given the fact that the number of black and Hispanic high school graduates entering college in any given year is fixed and unrelated to the presence or absence of racial preference policies at the more competitive institutions, policies of racial preference serve only as upward-ratcheting devices rather than devices which pull more black and Hispanic students into the college and university system.  And in the very nature of the upward-ratcheting logic, one school's "diversity gain" is always purchased at the expense of another's "diversity loss."  If the University of Pennsylvania preferentially admits a black or Hispanic student who would otherwise have enrolled — absent a racial preference — at Lehigh, Penn State, or Rutgers, the students at these somewhat less competitive institutions are denied the diversity enhancement value of this student. Affirmative action in America is exclusively a reshuffling system that does nothing to affect the "pipeline problem" or to enhance black and Hispanic academic performance in high school. 
The Disaster of Downward Raiding
We might speak here of a "downward parasitism" or "downward raiding" problem.  The Tier-1 schools downwardly raid the Tier-2 and Tier-3 schools in the sense of taking black and Hispanic students who in a color-blind system would be attending those schools, thus depriving the students in those schools of whatever diversity value the minority students could provide.  And the Tier-2 and Tier-3 schools downwardly raid in the same fashion the Tier-4 and Tier-5 schools immediately beneath them on the selectivity scale.
Not only is it the case that one school's racial gain is at the expense of another's racial loss, but the quality of the ethno/racial interaction on college campuses is disastrously affected.  Many years ago Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport wrote an influential book on prejudice in which he described under what circumstances racial prejudice is enhanced or reduced.  A key ingredient for reducing racial prejudice, Allport's studies showed, was the commingling of people of a majority race who might harbor prejudices against a minority group with people of that minority group who are of equal or superior social status and achievement compared to the typical member of the majority group. Southern whites had much more day to day contact with blacks than Northern whites, Allport noted, but the blacks were most often uneducated maids, servants, sharecroppers and the like which did little to counteract the negative image of blacks many Southern whites held of them.  Under such circumstances regular contact reinforces prejudice and negative stereotyping instead of reducing it. 
Our current preference system has all the perverse kind of contact effects that Allport feared to the extent that it assures, in the very nature of upward-ratcheting, that the typical black or Hispanic student at highly competitive colleges and universities will be less academically accomplished or less academically talented than the typical white or Asian student.  The very logic of the system guarantees this result.  It's the "dumb jock" problem cast into an ethno-racial mold.  Just as the lowering of standards for recruited athletes results in a reinforcement of the association between "dumb" and "jock" on college campuses, so the lowering of standards for blacks and Hispanics reinforces the association — in the minds of all parties concerned including the black and Hispanic students themselves — of white and Asian with "smart" and black and Hispanic with "intellectually inferior."  "Dumb black and Hispanic affirmative action students" is the inevitable association created, even if strictures of political correctness and concerns over hurt feelings discourage it from being expressed publicly. Systems of differential standards inevitably produce perverse effects of this kind. Within the context of the zero-sum nature of the reshuffling system, upward-ratcheting guarantees that Allport's "good contact" — i.e. stereotype disconfirming contact — will always be replaced by "bad contact" — i.e. stereotype confirming contact.  
We touch here upon what is sometimes called "the stigma reinforcement problem," but Chace doesn't address this dilemma at all despite its salience in the critique of affirmative action critics. One suspects that it is simply too powerful a reason for jettisoning racial preferences — and applying uniform standards — to be faced honestly and squarely. Unlike most college presidents and administrators, Chace is completely above board in acknowledging the size of the boost blacks and Hispanics typically receive in admission to the most competitive colleges and universities.  He cites relevant statistics on this from Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and his colleagues. There's no talk about "a mere thumb on the scale," "modest plus-factoring," or "preferences only in a toss-up case."  He knows that a check in the box marked "Black" on an application to college confers a modest advantage over a mark in the "Hispanic" box, but that a check in either box confers an enormous advantage over a mark in the "White" box, and an even greater advantage over a mark in the "Asian" box.  None of this seems to bother him, however, either in terms of equity or fairness, or in the effect such differential standards are likely to have on the inter-racial dynamics on competitive college campuses.  One wishes Chace had read Allport.
Heading Toward a Confederation of Contending Tribes?

00119d2c_medium.jpegChace's article in The American Scholar presents us with the challenging metaphor of the "model commonwealth."  And the metaphor, neutral on its face, prompts those of us in the classical liberal tradition to ask, "What sort of commonwealth do we wish America to be, a nation of deliberating citizens or a confederation of contending tribes?"  Although Chace doesn't acknowledge the fact, his idea of quota-driven racial and ethnic representation in colleges and universities reflects the structure and mind-set of a tribal confederation, not a citizen republic — a confederation in which ethnic identity-groups enjoy a special status in custom and law that often overrides the rights of individual citizens and the broader understanding of ourselves as all equally Americans. Some would call it the Lebanonization of America.

In a forthcoming book on affirmative action, I argue that this is a form of social poison for any multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society with the complex history and demographic diversity of America, and that enormous good would be done for all parties concerned by eliminating racial preferences root and branch.  I also argue that this might put whites, Asians, Mideasterners and others in a better frame of mind to address the real problems of the truly disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics in our nation's cities.  The sorry state of the urban underclass– together with white guilt over that condition — has been skillfully manipulated by elements of the black and Hispanic middle class to gain support for preferential policies that mainly benefit themselves.  Chace recognizes the genuine plight of the minority underclass, and recognizes too that affirmative action policies both inflame white and Asian opinion while doing nothing to alleviate the plight of those truly in distress.  He doesn't seem to realize, however, how much this hatred of preference policies has diminished white and Asian peoples' quite limited storehouse of racial generosity and racial goodwill. In a revealing social science experiment using innovative survey research techniques, political scientists Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza showed that the "mere mention" of racial preference policies causes whites to think greater ill of blacks.
If Chace really wants a "model commonwealth" worthy of the name, he would do well to remember the color-blind ideal of citizenship that so energized liberal reformers from the time of Justice Harlan's magisterial dissent in the 1896 Plessy case through those post-World War II years that we call the Civil Rights Era.  Model commonwealths, Chase needs to learn, are constructed out of the cooperation and civic-mindedness of rights-respecting citizens, not out of the enmity and contentiousness of turf-protecting tribes.


  • Russell K. Nieli

    Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He is the author of "Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide."

2 thoughts on “A Desperate Defense of Affirmative Action

  1. I am a late ’80’s graduate of Wesleyan, and my contact with the school these days is limited to the alumni mag. and reading “The Gatekeepers” on its admissions office a few years ago (after reading it, I ended my modest yet annual donations to the school). Despite this remove, I can assure the author that the Diversity Rationale is alive and well as an institutional value at Wesleyan. Given the school’s current president’s affection for his role as a revered public intellectual, if Chace’s new model has any influence I will certainly be reading about it in the alumni mag.

  2. Great job, as we’ve come to expect from Professor Nieli. I would add that there is the little problem of racial preferences being presumptively illegal. Thus, as much as Dr. Chace might like the “hobbled by chains” rationale, the Supreme Court has rejected it — so it is, legally speaking, a nonstarter. Likewise, he might like the “model commonwealth” argument, but it has no legal basis — indeed, it sounds a lot like the “discrimination for its own sake” that Justice Powell summarily rejected in his Bakke opinion. So schools are stuck with the diversity justification — and, as Dr. Chace apparently admits, it grows “weaker and weaker” with every tick of the clock.

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