25 Years on the Affirmative Action Firing Line

Over the more than 25 years that I have been writing articles and giving talks critical of racial preferences at American universities, I think I have learned something about the contours of the public debate on this issue, especially as it pertains to the more selective institutions.  Here are four salient conclusions I have reached.

(1) The Overpowering Force of Arguments against Racial Preferences

The common arguments that critics have been making for so long, when taken together, are simply overpowering, and clearly outmatch the arguments on the other side. Here is a convenient list of some of the weightier arguments that opponents of “affirmative action” have made, grouped together into twelve simple assertions.

Racial preferences are rejected because:

  • they reinforce negative stigmas and negative stereotypes concerning the intellectual competence of those in the supposed beneficiary categories;
  • they are downwardly parasitic by depriving lower-ranking institutions of the diversity-enhancement value of those black and Latino students who are upwardly ratcheted away into higher ranking institutions;
  • they cause academic mismatches especially in the hard science fields and in law schools placing the supposed beneficiaries of the policies in intellectual arenas too competitive for their individual needs;
  • they contribute to extensive racial self-segregation on campus by promoting the belief in academically inferior and academically superior racial groups;
  • they are particularly unfair to Asian students who often have to meet a higher admission standard than all other students;
  • they diminish the incentives of those in the beneficiary groups for doing their academic best since they know they will receive huge boosts in graduate and professional school admissions — and jobs in the corporate sector — just as they received huge boosts to get into competitive undergraduate schools;
  • they taint the credentials of all in the beneficiary categories, even the most talented and most accomplished, by suggesting that they have met lower standards of excellence than that applied to others;
  • they lead to heightened racial tensions on campus because of their extreme unpopularity and the sense of injustice they cause, especially among many white and Asian students;
  • they induce academic administrators, in the face of their unpopularity, possible illegality, and implied insult to those in the beneficiary categories to lie about them — or when they must acknowledge them, to do so only through prettifying obfuscations, euphemisms, verbal dodges and mendacious code words (e.g., “diversity,” “inclusion,” “a campus that looks like America,” “affirmative action,” etc.);
  • they increase pressure towards grade inflation, grade compaction, and the proliferation of “gut” courses lest those brought to campus under lowered standards (a category that includes many recruited athletes along with affirmative action students) flunk out or get grades too demeaning to maintain their self-esteem;
  • they do away with the fair, reasonable, eminently just, easily understood, and widely supported ideal of academic merit as the major criteria for admittance to highly selective colleges and universities;
  • they are a “pernicious palliative” (Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom) that obscures the real problem of poorly performing black and Latino students in the nation’s elementary and secondary school system, while at the same time inducing a “we already gave at the office” mentality, and a “civil rights fatigue,” that undermine the sense of social concern in the wider society to do anything constructive to address this problem.

Nothing So Weighty

It’s a long list, yet it is by no means a complete list, and there is simply nothing comparable in size or weightiness that supporters of racial preferences can submit to counteract its combined effect.  I have discovered this time and again in discussing racial preference policies on panel discussions and in informal debates.  It is at least partially for this reason that the more savvy supporters of racial preferences discourage even-handed public debate on the issue.  They know their side would lose.

(2) The Power of Black Conservative Testimony

As an Italian-American, who is usually seen by blacks and Latinos in the audiences I address simply as “white” (an identity I have never adopted for myself and in many ways is alien to me), I find it particularly effective in presenting the case against racial preferences to quote leading black critics.  Black critics of racial preferences often speak with great passion, conviction and authority on the topic, and I find simply quoting them often elicits a resonant response. Here are four pithy formulations against racial preferences by prominent black critics.

Thomas Sowell, one of the earliest Black critics of racial preference policies, decries racial preference policies in college admissions and employment in one of his early works, Black Education: Myths and Tragedies:

The actual harm done by quotas is far greater than having a few incompetent people here and there — and the harm that will actually be done will be harm primarily to the black population.  What all the arguments and campaigns for quotas are really saying, loud and clear, is that black people just don’t have it, and that they will have to be given something in order to have something.  The devastating impact of this message on black people — particularly black young people — will outweigh any few extra jobs that may result from this strategy.  Those black people who are already competent, and who could be instrumental in producing more competence among this rising generation, will be completely undermined as black becomes synonymous — in the minds of black and white alike — with incompetence, and black achievement becomes synonymous with charity and payoffs.

Shelby Steele, also an early black critic of racial preferences, sounds a similar note decrying their power to reinforce negative stigmas and negative stereotypes concerning their supposed beneficiaries:

The accusation that black Americans have always lived with is that they are inferior … and this accusation has been too uniform, too ingrained in cultural imagery, too enforced by law, custom, and every form of power not to have left a mark. So when today’s young black students find themselves on white campuses, surrounded by those who historically have claimed superiority, they are also surrounded by the myth of their inferiority.  … And today this myth is sadly reinforced for many black students by affirmative action programs, under which blacks may often enter college with lower test scores and high-school grade-point-averages than whites.  “They see me as an affirmative action case,” one black student told me at UCLA. … A black student at Berkeley told me that he felt defensive every time he walked into a class and saw mostly white faces.  When I asked why, he said, “Because I know they’re all racists.  They think blacks are stupid.”

The tendency of preference policies to diminish the incentive and reduce the motivation of those in the beneficiary categories to do their academic best is stressed by almost all black critics of the policies.  Here is John McWhorter, a distinguished linguist and amateur actor now teaching at Columbia University, reflecting on his own experience in a mixed-race private high school:

I can attest that in secondary school I quite deliberately refrained from working to my highest potential because I knew that I would be accepted to even top universities without doing so.  Almost any black child knows from an early age that there is something called affirmative action which means that black students are admitted to schools under lower standards than white; I was aware of this from at least the age of ten.  And so I was quite satisfied to make B+’s and A-‘s rather than the A’s and A+’s I could have made with a little extra time and effort.  … If every black student in the country knows that not even the most selective schools in the country require the very top grades or test scores of black students, that fine universities just below this level will readily admit them with even a B+/B dossier by virtue of their “leadership qualities” or “spark,” and that even just a better-than-decent application file will grant them admission to solid second-tier selective schools, then what incentive is there for any but the occasional highly driven student to devote his most deeply committed effort to school? … In general, one could think of few better ways to depress a race’s propensity for pushing itself to do its best in school than a policy ensuring that less-than-best efforts will have a disproportionately high yield.

Finally, Carol Swain, who is a professor of both law and political science at Vanderbilt University, describes a similar incentive reduction among many black undergraduate students she has observed over the years.  The expectation of a huge racial boost in graduate and professional school admissions, she believes, may be an important factor in explaining why so many blacks wind up with lower grades in college than whites with the same SAT scores (a trend researchers call “underperformance”):

As an older undergraduate student in the 1980s, I often encountered other black college students struggling with grade point averages at or below a 2.00 on a 4.00 scale who voiced aspirations of wanting to become lawyers and doctors.  If I challenged them directly by responding, “But I thought you needed a 3.0 to get into law or medical school” — almost invariably the student would respond, “Oh, they have to let us in.  They have to let us in, because of affirmative action.”  Now, I don’t believe that many of those students were actually admitted to professional schools, but the misinformation led some genuinely to believe that traditionally white professional schools were obligated to take them, regardless of their less-than-stellar performance.  This perception, I believe, affected how hard these students trained.  The knowledge of affirmative action’s double standards no doubt caused some to neglect burning the midnight oil. …  Could such beliefs be a factor in the well-documented fact that black students in college underperform their SAT scores — that is, black students with the same SAT scores as whites exhibit a considerably lower performance in college than white students?

(3) There Are Good Diversities and Bad Diversities

One simple way I have found to get audiences’ attention and to rethink things that have been drummed into their heads repeatedly without reflection, is to state simply that there are good diversities and bad diversities.  Many in my audiences have never heard the phrase “bad diversities” or heard it contrasted with good ones — all diversities are presumed good.  Good diversities, I explain, are ones that a) broaden perspectives, b) encourage tolerance, goodwill and understanding among people of diverse racial, ethnic, religious and other demographic backgrounds, and that, above all, c) break down ingrained prejudices and negative stereotypes.  Bad diversities have the opposite effects.

It is not very difficult, I explain, to identify the bad diversities:  Stigma-creating diversities, diversities that encourage belief in intellectually inferior and intellectually superior racial groups, diversities that heighten racial tensions on college campuses and encourage self-segregation in college lunch rooms and elsewhere, diversities that are downwardly parasitic and deprive lower-ranking institutions of the ability to create their own kinds of healthy diversities, diversities that reduce the incentives for those in the beneficiary categories to do their academic best in college — all these are very bad diversities that should be avoided at all costs.

If I have time, usually in an informal discussion after a talk, I try to explain the social psychology research on this topic:  Building on the pioneering research of the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950s, social psychologists have come to a well-supported consensus about the kinds of contacts and interactions between people of diverse backgrounds that work towards the decline in prejudice and negative stereotyping.  Many kinds of contact they recognize — think of the Balkans, the many tribally-divided states of post-colonial Africa, or the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century — serve to intensify and confirm mutual prejudices and enmities between peoples rather than mitigate them.  The Vienna in which Adolf Hitler came of age and in which he learned his hatred of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world — and it was a seething cauldron of mutual animosities between a kaleidoscope of eastern and central European ethnic groups.  The social psychology consensus contends that only under very special circumstances do enhanced contact and diversity lead to lessened prejudice and other beneficial results.

These special circumstances include all of the following: a) equality of status between those making the contact; b) a non-competitive environment in which one ethnic group’s gain is not seen to be at the expense of another group’s welfare; c) the opportunity to encounter sufficient numbers of people who counter the negative stereotype one group holds of the other; d) the challenge of a common goal or common task that requires some collective or cooperative effort to be achieved; d) the lack of artificiality or Potemkin-like quality to the interaction; and, e) the support of wider community norms and of those in authority.

It is not difficult for audiences to see that few if any of these criteria are met by current forms of racial preference policies on university campuses.  I sometimes quote in this context the East Indian-born conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, who sums up the situation nicely: “Admissions policies [at American universities] that once sought to extend equal opportunity to all individuals regardless of their background now exalt group membership above individual achievement in allocating scarce seats in freshman class.  The predictable result is a jealous and often bellicose group consciousness among students who do enroll.  They think of themselves as ethnic platoons engaged in a silent struggle in which the gains of one necessarily entail the losses of the other.  … From the moment students arrive on campus they know that the rules have somehow been politically rigged and their fate as individuals depends on whether they belong to the favored group or the unfavored group.”  And with considerable understatement D’Souza concludes, “This is no formula for racial harmony.”

(4) Why Racial Preferences Persist Despite their Overwhelming Harms

The fourth and final element on my list of things learned from years of debating affirmative action policy is in many ways the most disconcerting.  As someone who would like to think that reason and evidence have a good deal to do with how public policy disputes are settled, I have come to the sad conclusion that support for racial preference policies, at least among many affluent whites, is largely the product of factors that have little to do with either reason or observed consequences.   I am not talking here about the college bureaucrats and administrators who support racial preferences largely to insulate themselves and their institutions against charges of racism or the possibility of disruptive demonstrations. Such people are legion, and however much one may decry their cowardice and lack of commitment to truth or higher principles, their actions are eminently understandable from the perspective of their own petty interests. They may well be aware of the many harms created by the policies they support, but they support them anyway as a means of keeping the peace, keeping their jobs, and avoiding criticism and attack.

The people I have in mind are the enthusiasts for racial preferences who have powerful emotional commitments to such policies that go beyond concern over job security or keeping the institution for which they work free of disruptions.  While some in this category may be academic careerists, their support for racial preferences goes far beyond career interests.  These are the True Believers and Inspired Enthusiasts, whose support for racial preferences derives from deep emotional roots that are rarely discussed in public debates. While almost all white supporters of racial preferences feebly attempt to justify their support on rational policy grounds, there is something else going on for the more enthusiastic supporters that has nothing to do with either the more mundane kinds of self-interest or with any honest cost/benefit assessment of the policy’s actual effects.

Shelby Steele, I believe, is one of the few writers to grasp fully the source of some of these deeper emotional and psychological factors that are at work.  For many of its affluent white supporters, says Steele, affirmative action is not so much a policy aimed at achieving pragmatic goals as an instance of what he calls “iconographic social reform.”  Such reform, he says, is mainly symbolic in nature, and exists primarily for what it psychologically represents in the minds of those who support it more than for what it pragmatically achieves in the lives of those it is intended to help. “Iconographic programs and policies function as icons of the high and honorable motivations that people want credit for when they support these reforms,” Steele writes.  “The announced goals of these programs and policies will be very grand, the better to represent their high virtuousness, yet vague so that their inevitable failures will not be held against them.”  The supporters of iconographic programs, he goes on, “are primarily concerned that these policies function as icons of their high motivation, not whether they achieve anything or whether they mire those they claim to help in terrible unintended consequences.”

Steele believes that iconographic policies concerning race came into prominence in the 1960s as a way for white liberals to fend off the shame that came to be associated with being white as a result of the success of the civil rights and black power movements of the period.  As a result of the civil rights victories of the 1960s, Steele writes, whites “became identified with the shame of white racism that the nation had finally acknowledged, and they fell under a kind of suspicion that amounted to a stigma.” Whites underwent during this period, he says, a kind of “archetypical Fall,” as they “were confronted for more than a decade with their willingness to participate in, or comply with, the oppression of blacks.”  This Fall, says Steele, added a new burden to white life in America — henceforth whites had to prove that they were not racists “in order to establish their human decency.”

It was this new burden of guilt and the need to prove their non-racist decency, according to Steele, that was “the most powerful, yet unspoken, element in America’s social-policy making process” of the 1960s and beyond.  This guilt-and-expiation-driven policy process, he says, sometimes wound up producing genuine advances for African Americans, including passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  But the process just as often led to harmful public policies particularly in the form of racial preferences and racial entitlements, which undermined black initiative and reinforced the worst kind of negative stereotypes concerning black competence and character.  The moral corruption here, he believes, is to be seen in the fact that when the selfishly guilty put their own need for a restoration of innocence above the true needs of those they claim to want to help, they often wind up doing great harm while feeling good about what they do.  And in their self-preoccupied desire to feel morally cleansed and uplifted, they develop a willful blindness or indifference to the actual consequences of their actions. The elite universities in America, Steele believes, have been the arenas where this destructive, self-preoccupied white guilt has had some of its worst and most enduring consequences.

 Sin and Redemption

Steele’s observations and analysis here conform quite well to my own experience.  Indeed, I have sometimes used similar sin-and-redemption metaphors as the best way to describe what I think is really going on in the minds of the more enthusiastic white supporters of racial preferences — e.g. people like former Princeton president William Bowen or former Vanderbilt president William Chace. I’ll end here with a quotation from one of the chapters in my book on affirmative action in which I explain why racial preference policies have been so immune to rational criticism:

[For its affluent white supporters — including many college presidents and high level administrators — racial preference policies take on more of  the characteristics of a holy crusade than a rationally thought-out policy.  Their main purpose] seems to be the symbolic cleansing of an evil white society from its racist past whose real logic must be sought in a ritual of sin and redemption rather than an analysis of the actual costs and benefits of the policy. Seen in this light, affirmative action becomes a form of racial penance, a public display of racial virtue, whose emotional center of gravity lies in the expiatory needs of its guilty white supporters more than the real needs of its intended beneficiaries.   For its guilt-ridden white supporters affirmative action is a public way of atoning for the past misdeeds of their race.  It is a way of proclaiming to black people: We white people are sorry for our past sins and are trying to make amends!  The actual effect of the policy in terms of black academic performance, race relations on campus, incentive structures, stigma-reinforcement, cascading effects, mismatching penalties, “stereotype threat,” “social distancing”, failure on the bar exams and in science majors, etc. become purely secondary to this overriding symbolic and cathartic purpose.  It is for this reason that affirmative action — like a crusade — is often impervious to rational criticism.

After more than 25 years on the affirmative action firing line, this is the most important — and most disconcerting — fact that I have learned. Reason and evidence are no match for ‘iconographic social reform’ or for the self-indulgent narcissism of white-guilt expiating elites.


  • 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."

5 thoughts on “25 Years on the Affirmative Action Firing Line

  1. Blacks who live today don’t deserve any reparation for past misdeeds of members of the white race since the slave owners are dead a long time since, same as the former slaves. Or do we want to charge currently living Mongolians for the destruction Ghenghis Khan wrought upon medieval Asia and Europe, or todays Zulus for the crimes of black king Zulu Shaka in the southern parts of Africa? However the current affirmative action program will lead to long lasting resentment and hatred of whites towards blacks and hispanics since tolerance and respect and also pity for other races and injustices brought upon them end with one’s own career, future and material well being. That’s not a happy perspective for the future of race relations in America and the rest of the world and may contribute to a future possible race war in America.

  2. Thanks for another fantastic post. Where else may anybody get that kind of information in such
    a perfect approach of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

  3. Can I just ѕay wҺat a relief to uncover somebodү that really understands wҺat they
    are discussing on tɦe internet. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important.
    A ⅼot more people really need to look ɑt this and undeгstand this side
    оf your story. I can’t believe you’re not more
    popular given that you certainly possess the gift.

  4. ” For its guilt-ridden white supporters affirmative action is a public way of atoning for the past misdeeds of their race. It is a way of proclaiming to black people: We white people are sorry for our past sins and are trying to make amends! ”

    No, it isn’t. It’s a way for white people to slither way from their responsibility, which of course is paying reparations for 200+ years of free labor, labor which laid the economic foundation for the nation, no less. Affirmative Action policies are a cop-out, and doesn’t even come close to what American Africans are owed. Lack of accountability amongst white people is pathological, it’s almost a disease at this point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *