Let Students Act on Affirmative Action

Last week I published a commentary on affirmative action at Inside Higher Ed that laid down a simple proposal. With 30 percent of first-year college students terming themselves “Liberal” or “Far Left,” 47 percent of them “Middle-of-the-road,” and with only 23 percent of them agreeing that “Racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America,” a clear course is open.  Those white students who agree with affirmative action and the necessity of colleges to have a student body roughly proportionate to the overall population by race should hereby avoid selective colleges that lack those proportions.  They can contribute to the right amounts of diversity by going elsewhere–my example is choosing UMass-Boston over Williams.  The pool of top white applicants would shrink, allowing for more Black/African American and Latino/Hispanic students.

In other words, act according to your principles.  Youths and their parents who favor affirmative action should practice it on their own, through their individual choices.  If they don’t, if they apply to selective colleges whose student population is only six percent Black/African American, and subsequently earn admission and matriculate, they contribute to the very problem they deplore.

It’s not complicated, just a matter of contributing directly toward the ultimate goal of affirmative action in college admissions.  But you wouldn’t think so if you read the comments on the piece.  Many of them insist that there is no hypocrisy in liberal white students believing in affirmative action mechanisms for diversity and still attending disproportionately white campuses.  “Name” writes,

“Each student who applies is participating in the selection system, and the selection system includes rules about affirmative action, legacy admits, athletic scholarships, etc. So, it is simply false to claim that they are not participating or that whatever affirmative action rules are in effect do not apply to them.   This is the same sort of false hypocrisy charge that is hurled at anyone who calls for a raise in taxes, no matter the size, who does not voluntarily pay more in taxes than the law requires.”

“Mark Jackson” writes,

“There’s nothing inherently hypocritical about wishing to remake society in a particular way, but not wishing unilaterally to walk away from an advantage while other people aren’t also doing so.”

ScottF adds,

“It is not hypocritical to support affirmative action and apply to an elite college. As a supporter of affirmative action, here is your obligation: willingly participate in a hiring/admissions system in which systematic preference may be given to members of underrepresented groups. Period.”

That’s the counter-assertion, that is, that attending a selective college with too many white students (according to their own outlook) does not spell a contradiction or any hypocrisy.  Other commenters chime in, citing the clear violation of the progressives’ own “think globally-act locally” principle, but the pro-affirmative action voices who defend liberal white students for attending elite institutions insist on their integrity.

The contrast over how to walk-the-walk highlights a broader divide between progressives and conservatives/libertarians, that between individual and collectivist outlooks.  As another commenter on the Left, “pickaname,” puts it,

“. . . this is a collective action problem. A basic awareness of human nature or economics suggests that there is nothing hypocritical about being pro-affirmative action and applying to selective colleges.”

Conservatives/libertarians think  differently.  Ethics for them begins in personal behavior, and if  you can’t act upon your own initiative, you shouldn’t ask anybody else to, either.

For the progressive, advocating a systemic change is enough; or perhaps simply supporting it frees one from the responsibility of living by it.  As long as all the others haven’t signed on to the program, why should you make any sacrifices on your own?   I find it a bizarre rationale, and it reveals one source of collectivist failures over the years from Brook Farm to Mao’s China.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

One thought on “Let Students Act on Affirmative Action”

  1. It asks a bit too much, as Bauerlein does, that those who favor affirmative action must “walk the walk” or be quiet. But it’s not too much to ask that they admit that they’re being hypocritical. I find it fascinating and troubling that they’re unable to do so.

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