Beyond race-based affirmative action

After oral arguments today in Fisher vs. University of Texas, many think the U.S. Supreme Court will limit, if not eliminate, universities’ ability to use race in admissions. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, argues UT has achieved diversity by admitting the top 10 percent graduates at each high school and doesn’t need to use a race-conscious policy to admit more blacks and Hispanics.

A loss for affirmative action would be good for ethnic and racial diversity in the long run, argues Thomas J. Espenshade, in Moving Beyond Affirmative Action, a New York Times commentary. Americans would have to address “the deeply entrenched disadvantages that lower-income and minority children face from the beginning of life,” writes Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton and a co-author of  No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.

Race-based affirmative action affects only 1 percent of all black and Hispanic 18-year-olds, the students who apply to more selective colleges and universities, he writes. Eliminating the preference would cut black admissions by 60 percent and Hispanics by one-third at selective private schools. Giving preferences to low-income students wouldn’t make up the difference, “given the large numbers of working-class non-Hispanic whites and Asians in the applicant pool.”

Without affirmative action, racial diversity on selective college campuses could be preserved only by closing the racial achievement gap, Espenshade writes.

 If affirmative action is abolished, selective colleges and universities will face a stark choice. They can try to manufacture diversity by giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race — for example, having overcome disadvantage in a poor urban neighborhood. Or they can take a far bolder step: putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.

That would be a long, hard struggle, but it would benefit many more people. “However the court decides the Fisher case, affirmative action’s days appear numbered,” Espenshade predicts. “In 2003, in the Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she expected such preferences to disappear within 25 years — by 2028. The children who would go off to college that year are already 2 years old.”

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    People who work in colleges, universities, medical schools, law schools, etc. will not let affirmative action die without a fight. And these people have great influence. Judges listen to law professors, to take one example.

    Here’s a cynical theory: For whatever reason, to the extent that white American culture differs from black American culture, white American culture is more academic-friendly. On average, white American kids come to school destined to do better than black American kids. And they do. To a significant extent, American society hands out rewards based on academic success. So schools keep blacks down. They are, to use a wonderful old Marxian expression, “objectively” white supremacist.

    My God, this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thought if you work in the ed business. What to do? Perhaps, American society could put less emphasis on academic success, give less privilege to those with degrees. But this would strike at the economic and psychic self-interest of those who work in the institutions that provide those degrees.

    So what is left? Give preferences to blacks in college admissions. “See, we’re not keeping blacks down. We’re inviting them in, even when they don’t meet our ordinary standards. See, we really are good people.”

    With affirmative action gone, it would be obvious just how much diploma privilege screws black people. For many powerful people, that is intolerable.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Hmmm, maybe, or we could just view affirmative action as a class privilege because it disproportionately benefits middle-class and affluent blacks and negatively affects poor and working class whites. Academics are fine with this because, hey, who gives a crap about poor white people? They’re déclassé and probably racist to boot. Unless, of course they adopt the appropriate liberal/left political world view and join Occupy Wall Street – then they’re okay. But, they’ll probably just go join the military and get their legs blown off. All you really need to understand is that academics hate poor and working class white people.

      Middle-class and affluent whites are fine with this arrangement, too. They aren’t giving up their spots at the better schools afterall, and it’s nice having “diversity” on campus. They get to feel all nice and warm about what a wonderful institution they attend. And, they don’t really like poor white people either. They’re embarassing; they like Nascar, believe in God, and are fat.

      And, academics wonder why big chunks of the American population hate them – but those people are just “anti-intellectuals”.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Yes, the theory says it’s class privilege, but one of the results, the systematic “disparate impact” on black people, is something that makes the privileged feel terrible.

    One way out is to say that the non-academic society is “structurally racist” or some equivalent, while the educational sector is working to overcome that racism. Affirmative action allows people in the education sector to believe that. If it is gone, there is a terrible truth to face: American privileging of academic success helps whites and hurts blacks.

    • American privileging of academic success helps whites and hurts blacks.

      Sadly, the ability to master mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and so forth creates privilege in fields from architecture to zoölogy.  And not just in social recognition, but in things like buildings that cost less and don’t fall down!

      Nature is racist, and must be abolished for the sake of social justice.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    To be a physicist, you have to know plysics and a lot of math. To be the assistant manager at the local Marriott, you don’t need much in the way of academic skills. Requiring a physics degree for the former position makes sense. Requiring a college degree for the latter position is, in the words of the Supreme Court, a “built-in headwind” to black success. One that has nothing directly to do with the skills needed for the position.

    Most jobs require remarkably little in the way of specific academic preparation. Basic literacy, yes. Basic numeracy, sometimes. Beyond that, not so much.

  4. Most H.R. departments need a clue by 16 in that respect, Roger.

    Most times, they’ll use insane requirements to filter out just about every candidate imaginable, then they’ll complain they can’t find qualified workers, when in many cases, the listed requirements by H.R. (in some cases) have absolutely nothing to do with getting the job done.

    More tools to screen out people, IMO.

    • Most times, they’ll use insane requirements to filter out just about every candidate imaginable

      Look to Griggs vs. Duke Power and the entire issue of “disparate impact” for the cause of this.  The insane requirements are cheaper than an employment-discrimination suit, and employers are left scrambling every time some way of filtering out incompetent and/or dangerous (physically or just legally) applicants is ruled to be illegal.  The hodgepodge of crazy requirements are driven by what’s left in the toolbox.

      • After some recent dealings with our HR department I’m convinced HR people who deal with recruiting are mostly idiots who don’t have a clue about the job requirements of the positions they are trying to hire people for.

        At least if what they were doing was driven by avoiding lawsuits I could kind of understand it. But that is never the excuse given for their practices.

        The candidates they send us rarely make it past the phone screen and typically get rejected due to not having the desired skills, attitude, and/or being a poor fit if they do. The candidates we send them get rejected because they either didn’t go to the right school, don’t have a degree in the right field, or don’t fit a very narrow reading of the desired skills. Thankfully our department can still route around them but it is a struggle every time we do.

        • You realize that the HR department is one of the favorite places to slot the affirmative action hires, don’t you?  The litany of woes you list sounds an awful lot like HR was giving the candidate selection job to someone with a degree in hyphenated studies ticking off boxes on an EEOC-compliance checklist.