Resuscitating Affirmative Action

The renewed debate in California about affirmative action is exposing the flaws in a contentious policy that attempts to justify a racial spoils system with the shibboleth “equality of opportunity”.  The idea that somehow we can obliterate the social, economic, motivational, and intellectual differences between people by becoming fixated on race and waving the magic wand of public policy is to indulge a mindless statist fantasy.

Affirmative action starts with the ludicrous assumption that people distribute themselves in the socioeconomic hierarchy according to their distribution in the population. Consequently, if a group is underrepresented in certain valued positions, it is solely because of discrimination.  And discrimination needs to be compensated for by policies of preferential treatment.

At the time of its inception in the late 1960s, affirmative action could find justification in decades of de jure and de facto discrimination.  It was supposed to be a temporary policy.  But more than half-century later, it persists with virulence because no group, in any society, ever volunteered to give up preferential treatment.

During the senate debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Hubert Humphrey promised that there was nothing in the legislation that would compel the achievement of race-based outcomes. Humphrey said if this were to happen, he would stand on the floor of the Senate and publicly eat the legislation, page by page.

But in little over a year, Humphrey’s assurances were becoming meaningless. The civil rights movement, which in Brown v. Board of Education had argued for a colorblind society, began to shift ground dramatically toward preferential treatment.

Nowhere was preference more institutionalized than in higher education admissions.  African Americans could make the cut in medical school with Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT scores) that were lower than those of whites and Asians who had been rejected. A black applicant to the most prestigious law school had a 17 times higher chance of being admitted than a white or Asian with similar test scores. And instead of helping these students, the policies of preference condemn these law students to high failure rates at the bar examination.

Government record keepers pressured university administrators to produce outcomes.  A system of equal opportunity was reinterpreted to mean equality of results. Faculty members were pressured to devise systems to make those results happen.  State and local civil rights groups vocalized their own expectations of the percentage of minorities they expected to have college degrees. Faculty complied because it is always possible to create a mechanism where students can get a degree. Of course, providing a meaningful education was an entirely different matter.

Undergraduate programs used sympathy grading. Graduate programs used heavy editing, a euphemism for faculty totally rewriting theses and even dissertations. Medical colleges created remediation, a permissive system of repeating courses until they were passed. Professors changed curves to make sure that minorities passed. 

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, a society based on ascription rather than achievement is a dysfunctional society.

Perhaps the least obvious victims of the policy were the bright African-American students who would have made it under any circumstances. They unfairly bore the stigma of the quotas. No matter how intelligent they were or what they achieved, the system made it all suspect.

But equally compromised was the intellectual environment.  In the intertwined groves of academy, there are few secrets. Students quickly learn who is being held to standards and who is not.

In 1996, the voters in California, by an overwhelming majority, rejected the use of racial and ethnic considerations in higher education.

Jesse Jackson protested that California was cleansing its higher education system of black students and denying equal opportunity. In reality, California was closing the door on those students who had not acquired the skills to be admitted in the first place or possess the potential to finish.

The reality of affirmative action is that if some are underrepresented based on their distribution in the population then others are overrepresented. The most overrepresented -- if only group characteristics and not achievement were the calculus of decision-making -- are Asians.

Affirmative action had not only blocked qualified whites but also Asians. With merit restored, the entrance rates for blacks and Hispanics declined, while those for Asians went up dramatically.

Among Chinese-American applicants to the University of California campuses, 78% were admitted, the highest rate of any group. Whites were a distant second with 65%. 

Whatever one thinks of the changing demographics of California campuses, one thing is eminently clear, every Asian student got there by what he or she accomplished, not by some racial spoils system. In fact, across America, higher admission requirements are demanded of Asians than any other group. Treating Asians as too qualified is such a problem that Asian applicants are told not to check the Asian box on the college application form.

In California, there has been opposition from the African-American and Hispanic communities to the falling admission rates of their students as Proposition 209 replaced ascription with achievement.

In a move to amend the California constitution so as to repeal Proposition 209, Democratic legislators set off a firestorm of protest in normally politically uninvolved Asian-American communities. 

The places Asian-American students have won in the university system through hard work and accomplishment would now be set aside for less qualified Hispanics and African Americans, ironically in the name of equal opportunity.

SCA5, as the measure is known, sailed through the California senate. But then the Asian American communities took to the social media and launched a sophisticated campaign in opposition.  When the measure came to the state assembly, it hit an unexpected typhoon of opposition.

Asians, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, said they would switch parties if the measure went through. Not deterred by white guilt or the intimidation of being called racist, the Asian communities were willing to stand up for their children’s future.

State Senator Ed Hernandez, a major support of SCA5, said that affirmative action was needed because without it Eastern schools would “rip off” the best and brightest Hispanic and African-American students.  But the absurdity of this is palpable because the best and brightest students do not need affirmative action to find a place in the University of California system. 

There is neither social justice nor societal benefit in taking a place someone has earned by hard work and giving it to someone else because of the color of their skin.  Equality of opportunity was never meant to translate into equality of result.