Affirmative action in today’s colleges and universities is a giant failure machine. Every year thousands of black and Hispanic students, who have been led to believe that a college degree is well within reach and a first step toward economic success, are admitted to schools for which they barely qualify. The inevitable consequence is failure, whether that means dropping out due to low grades, enrolling in remedial courses, or switching majors from a STEM field to a less demanding “studies” department. It’s not pleasant to always be at the bottom of the grading curve while classmates regularly out-perform you. Tellingly, this psychological injury cannot be ameliorated by celebrating diversity and creating segregated dorms. That academically troubled blacks and Hispanics often excelled in their high schools and enjoyed sky-high self-esteem will only deepen their feelings of inadequacy.
Failure per se is not the problem; it’s the reaction to falling short that is critical. Being unsuccessful is ubiquitous in a meritocracy that celebrates success. Elite schools reject nearly all applicants, while professional sports teams ruthlessly cull the inept. Most business start-ups fail. Of the utmost importance, however, is that those who try out for a sports team or start a business know from the very beginning that failure likely awaits them. They thus accept disappointment, albeit often painfully. It’s all part of the rat race—nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of racial preferences do not seem to exhibit this quiet acceptance of failure. Rather than being thankful for the opportunity to compete with the very best, those who come up short often grow bitter and resentful. Such anger might seem rational, and is certainly understandable. These beneficiaries might ask: Who enticed me to enroll in a school where I was doomed to fail? Not me. Who’s responsible for telling me to waste years of my life? Not me. Or to acquire all this debt? Not me.
Anger then turns political, as the beneficiaries denounce the college or university as racist, biased against people of color, a bastion of white privilege, or worse. It would be as if those cut by an NFL team excoriated professional football as an evil scheme run by rich, white men designed to humiliate people by insisting on arbitrary, unrealistic standards for speed and dexterity.
Champions of diversity and inclusion never mention the connection between well-intentioned affirmative action for minorities and the failure-generated resentment. For them, affirmative action is all gain and no pain—it’s guaranteed to make America a better society. The mere possibility of exacerbating deep, socially divisive resentment is unspeakable. Perhaps, they assume that those who fail will just quietly fade into obscurity, ever so thankful for the mere opportunity.
The political fallout of affirmative action–induced failure cannot be ignored, so how can it be addressed? Unfortunately, managing failure is an under-studied subject despite its obvious importance in a society where the unqualified are told to “reach for the stars.”
An insightful analysis of failure is Erving Goffman’s classic, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaption to Failure.” Goffman’s subject is the criminal confidence racket—extracting money from the gullible (called “the mark” or “the sucker”) under false pretenses. A typical ruse is where the con men (also called “the roper”) gains the confidence of the sucker, convinces him to make a modest investment in some alluring-but-bogus scheme, and then, after some initial success, the mark invests much more and loses everything. The confidence man explains it all as an accident or something that never ever happened before and quickly departs.
But this hardly ends the con game, and it is here that Goffman’s analysis becomes relevant to minimizing the anger that comes with humiliating academic failures. The con man or an associate must convince the mark not to make a big public stink about the loss, not to physically attack the perpetrators of the scam, and, most critically, not to report the con game to the police. The equivalent in today’s anger-infused racial politics is to avoid raving and ranting about systemic racism, unearned white privilege, micro-aggressions, and all the rest. In the world of scams, this is called “cooling the mark,” and absent this cooling, it would be difficult to attract fresh victims. In Goffman’s words, “The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”
There is nothing underhanded about trying to convince the failed beneficiaries of affirmative action that their disappointing fate is fair. By the usual academic standards, such as test scores and high school grades, failure was predictable. Nothing was guaranteed, they got their shot, and, no doubt, at least some succeeded.
With Goffman’s analysis in mind, what is to be done about the industrial-scale anger produced by affirmative action? Clearly, the best solution is to end affirmative action altogether. Perhaps, adding this failure element to public discussion will strengthen the anti–racial preferencs argument. That is, affirmative action is not only unfair to smarter students (disproportionately Asian), but it unnecessarily generates an anger toxic for both the beneficiaries of preferences and American society more generally.
A second strategy focuses on the beneficiaries themselves. In a nutshell, convince potential affirmative action admittees that their quest for a prestigious degree is, to be blunt, a long shot, and that all the energy and money might be better invested elsewhere. This is the “truth-in-advertising” approach, just as financial advisors are required to explain risks to potential investors. Then, if the educational investment turns sour—i.e., choosing Yale over Boston University despite middling SAT scores—nobody is to blame other than the student. He himself—not a racist faulty, micro-aggressions, buildings honoring slave owners, and all the rest—explains his academic insufficiency. Beneficiaries of affirmative action might be required to sign a release form acknowledging that they understand the risks of attending an institution that might be beyond their academic qualifications. There is certainly nothing unfair about alerting these students to the formidable obstacles they face.
Unfortunately, this approach will encounter fierce opposition, as if disclosing risks somehow hurts those who need to know them. Opponents of such honesty often cannot even imagine the downside of preferences. At worst, they might argue, the anger and disappointment experienced by recipients of affirmative action are just minor collateral damage on the road to racial equality. You must break some eggs to make an omelet—here, the broken eggs are the blacks and Hispanics who painfully struggle at schools where they do not belong academically.
Then there are the functionaries who personally profit from this failed social engineering. This includes deans of diversity and inclusion, admissions officers who specialize in “wholistic” assessment, those teaching remedial courses, and on and on. In short, we have a vast, well-paid army that owes its existence to failure.
Lastly, and speculatively, are those who want the anger and resentment that comes with failure. For them, an academically uncompetitive student who endured a few years of humiliation is the perfect foot soldier in today’s anti-America culture wars. If he did manage to obtain a prestigious college degree, albeit only by majoring in propaganda-heavy post-colonial studies, better yet. Filled with rage after gorging on the Kool-Aid, he can spend years preaching about the evils of white society, the intractable racism of Western Civilization, and the de-colonization of America. As colleges and universities dig in their heels on racial preferences, it is no wonder that rage has become one of the defining traits of today’s often-destructive black politics.
It’s time to give failure a closer look.
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