2003 06 28
Affirmative Action

A few thoughts about affirmative action:

I’m glad that the Supreme Court has decided that some form of affirmative action is constitutionally kosher. But before we celebrate a victory for the forces of goodness, we might reflect on how unfortunate it is that so much of the debate about race and inequality in this country focuses on this one issue. Admission to law school, or even to undergraduate programs, takes place very late in the game: by this time in their lives people have already been shaped by all kinds of important social forces.

I worry that the focus on affirmative action in universities takes our attention off the fact that affirmative action is really a sop, a sort of ad hoc device that cannot hope to address the pervasive inequalities we seem to hope it will. For every minority admitted to an elite institution there will be a great many others who are deprived of a proper education in public school, to take only one example. If you were serious about dealing with these broader social inequalities, you might consider a serious measure, such as delinking property taxes and the quality of education children receive. Unless you do this, or something similarly radical, you have little hope of dealing justly with all the other people who never get near an elite institution.

Speaking of elite institutions, I haven’t gone over the case particularly carefully, but my understanding is that Michigan’s undergrad admissions flunked the court’s test because assigning points for race is too much like the quota system that was rejected by the court in Bakke. In contrast, the law school’s admissions policies passed muster with the court because they used the word “holistic” and claimed that race had no specific, uniform, policy-wide, role in the process. Sometimes it influenced the admissions panel, the law school told the court, and sometimes it did not.

The main thing to notice here (unless I’m just mistaken about the case) is that the “holistic” approach is far more expensive. As N. Lemann pointed out in his excellent book, The Big Test, most schools rely on standardized testing and point systems for economic reasons. Since I’m not completely sure about the law here, I’ll put this point in the form of a question rather than a claim: Won’t the practical effect of this ruling be to wipe out affirmative action in poorer schools, i.e. the vast majority of schools, while throwing liberals the bone of affirmative action in the view elite institutions which can afford it? Or have I simply misunderstood the issue? Anyone?

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