Artur Davis: What Affirmative Action Can’t Cure

As I argued in these pages over a year ago, a full scale retreat from racially influenced academic admissions would likely have the following impact: it would shrink the African American populations of the most elite private colleges without drying up the substantial market that would still remain for the same students: in blunter terms, fewer blacks at Harvard and Stanford, but plenty of slots for blacks who lose the Ivy League lottery available at, say, the University of Virginia and Cal-Berkeley; and a sizable, high quality pool of suitors for any reasonably strong black applicant, at institutions ranging from the University of Florida to Michigan State, from William and Mary to SMU.

Of course, that mostly rosy scenario would have its share of costs. In a society that is always one celebrity’s comments away from having its racial fissures exposed, and where attitudes on culture and politics have become more and not less racially polarized during the last several years, color-blindness seems more a quixotic than a realistic assessment of America circa the Obama era. In a political world where ten of the last twelve presidential nominees have diplomas from Harvard or Yale, and every single Supreme Court justice has the exact same credentials, it is impossible to dismiss our most elite degrees as just another inconsequential perk. Add to that mix the undeniable evidence of a growing gap between the children of highly educated parents and the rest of the social universe, and it is hard to argue that a major retrenchment on race in the admissions process wouldn’t contribute at least marginally to the level of inequality.

All of the above (and perhaps, a plaintiff’s strategy that was overly cautious) explains why even the conservative wing of the Roberts Court ultimately turned squeamish about a sweeping verdict on affirmative action. The Court’s 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas returning a challenge to the college’s admission process to a lower court for a more demanding, but not inevitably fatal, review seems right given the still unsettled state of play around race: short term, most universities will keep doing what they are doing, with some gradual, defensible move toward weighting class distinctions more heavily and eventually, a subtle shift toward more blacks with parents who are teachers and cops rather than state legislators or partners in top 100 law firms.

davis_artur-11There is a cautionary note, though, for critics on the left who feared that Fisher would be a disaster. For liberals, dodging a loss on race in higher education should spare some time for acknowledging an inconvenient set of truths. Roughly two generations of policies strengthening campus diversity have done nothing to close long term student achievement gaps along racial lines: those policies, in spite of their merits, are still the most top-heavy kind of success. They are measures that at their most robust only impact a cohort of talented individuals who will excel by any legitimate standard whether affirmative action lives or dies. The much needier and (numerically larger) set of minority students remains low income kids locked by geography and poverty into poorly performing K-12 schools—to date, improving their prospects attracts scant attention at best from contemporary liberals whose recent campaigns have focused on more redistributionist outcomes on taxes and healthcare, unfettered sexual autonomy, and tougher environmental rules. And when today’s liberals have waded onto the education front, it has either been in the context of expanded daycare or pre-K programs, which by definition offer first-blush, not often sustainable hits, or in the form of fending off conservative alternatives like vouchers and more testing, without offering any specific platform of their own for un-achieving schools.

To be sure, conservatives can seem out of touch when they profess to see no moral cost in wiping out the consideration of diversity by universities who are trying to make their campuses look something like the society around them. But it is the political left that has advanced an agenda that like it or loathe it, has been exceedingly ambitious on the economic, social, and regulatory front, but notably tepid in the arena of failing classrooms and barely literate eighth graders.


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