Following last week’s Justice Department decision to join a group of Asian-Americans in a civil rights lawsuit against Harvard University the online newspaper Vox rushed to post an article from an Asian-American, Alvin Chang, who seems to enjoy getting the short end of the stick.
Chang’s point, if you can call it that, is that only really bad people see affirmative action as harmful. He recounts an episode during an SAT prep class in which he first encountered resentment among Asian-Americans toward discriminatory affirmative action policy.
“During a snack break, another Asian kid in the class said to me, ‘You know we have to do better than even the white kids, right?’ I had never heard affirmative action framed that way — as a ‘bonus’ for black and brown people and a ‘penalty’ for white and especially Asian people.”
Well he should have heard affirmative action described that way because that’s exactly what it is. The other fellow in his prep course was obviously a whole lot more world-wise than Chang and yet we’re supposed to see him as borderline racist.
“At the time, I didn’t understand just how pernicious it was to think about affirmative action in those terms. Not only does that frame gloss over the reasons why race-conscious policies are necessary; it’s also the first step toward arguing that all race-conscious policies are unfair.”
Yeah, it’s a slippery slope from one logical thought to another. If we start thinking about affirmative action “in those terms”—in other words, for what it really is—we might start seeing the unfairness of affirmative action in other settings too. We might start seeing it as racial discrimination. And then we wouldn’t understand why it’s, um…”necessary.”
Perhaps that’s because it isn’t necessary. It’s merely desired, mostly by a group of people who don’t believe blacks and Hispanics can make the grade without being afforded a substantial handicap.
And maybe those people have a point. Studies have indicated that whenever affirmative action programs are deep-sixed, minority enrollment drops. This is absurdly intuitive. When the admissions department stops putting its thumb on the scale for a certain race, the proportion of that race in future freshman classes will be lower. Duh.
The Michigan public university system offers a good example. Following that state’s 2006 constitutional amendment which prohibited racial discrimination (“affirmative action”), minority enrollment dropped by about 30%. To affirmative action defenders the sharp decline is proof that continued discrimination against whites and Asians is “needed.” To the rest of us it’s proof that 30% of the minority students on campus were affirmative action babies who were taking someone else’s seat.
But that’s the “pernicious” way of looking at it. It also happens to be true.
Chang’s article struggles and ultimately fails to explain why affirmative action should not be understood as a system of bonuses and penalties distributed along color lines. Instead it makes the case that Asians are being manipulated by whites, as if Asians wouldn’t and shouldn’t be upset about a system that requires them to perform substantially better than other races to gain admission to the same schools. In this regard, Chang reminds me of the white southerners of yesteryear who insisted that “their negroes” were content until a bunch of “outside agitators” descended to stir up resentment in the black community. Asians would apparently be thrilled to be punished for their skin color if it weren’t for those outside agitators. Blame them, not the discrimination, for Asian discontent.
But Chang isn’t entirely wrong. The lawsuit against Harvard, for example, is being brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions which is headed by a white Houston businessman, Edward Blum.
So there’s a white guy is behind this!
Yes, and so what? The movement to end this injustice is at least biracial because its victims belong to two races. That’s understandable. The question is why Asians-Americans have become the face of the movement.
Perhaps it’s because the penalty for being born Asian is stiffer than for being born white. Another possible explanation is that white people in our society aren’t allowed to complain about anything—not about legally codified discrimination, or being assaulted, or being cursed out by a mob while studying at the library.
White plaintiffs have traditionally failed in court to make the government live up to its own nondiscrimination statutes which unambiguously prohibit racial discrimination. The fourteenth amendment bans the practice at public universities and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—that law that everyone claims to adore but no one actually follows—bans it at all universities that accept federal money.
And yet white plaintiffs have not traditionally prevailed in cases that they should have won. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sued the University of Texas because of its affirmative action policy and lost. Allan Bakke, a white man who sued the University of California in the 1970s because he was rejected from their medical school despite being clearly more qualified than some of the minority applicants who were accepted, won his own particular battle while the rest of us lost the war. The court ruled that Bakke’s rights were violated because the med school utilized an unconstitutional quota system but still maintained that a more “narrowly tailored” affirmative action system would have passed constitutional muster.
Which has forced whites to come up with clever ways of pushing back against policies that deliberately screw them over. Rather than saying that they oppose affirmative action because it harms them and their children economically, whites claim to oppose it because it harms Asians and their children economically. That’s true of course, but it sounds disingenuous.
Another approach is to argue that affirmative action actually hurts black Americans. This novel argument has two versions: mismatch theory and social stigma theory.
The basic idea behind mismatch theory is that placing blacks and Hispanics into academic programs which would not have otherwise accepted them does them no favors because it gets them in over their heads. Mismatch theory postulates that affirmative action artificially inflates black and Hispanic acceptance rates but almost guarantees a similarly high washout rate.
While I’m sure that mismatch theory has its merits, the argument still seems unpersuasive. I can imagine a bunch of black and Hispanic applicants saying to themselves, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll take the affirmative action.”
Then there’s the social stigma of affirmative action. This one addresses what happens after black and Hispanic students graduate and venture out into the job market. Many report that the value of their diplomas has been degraded because potential employers believe that they received preferential treatment on account of their race. This reaction is entirely rational because black and Hispanic applicants do receive preferential treatment because of their race. And perhaps it doesn’t end there. Sympathetic professors might have been rooting for minority students to succeed, going so far as to fudge their grades in the same way that they do for athletes. There’s no disputing that the bent of most colleges is toward boosting blacks and Hispanics, which makes employers justifiably skeptical about their credentials.
The liberals’ solution to this problem is pretty straightforward. Any employer who believes that the bar has been lowered for black and Hispanic applicants—even if it really has been lowered—should be relentlessly pilloried and sued into oblivion. My solution is a little more subtle: we ought to end the perception of special treatment by ending the reality of special treatment.
But both of these arguments against affirmative action—mismatch and social stigma—are usually made in bad faith. They’re made by white people who despise the very concept of affirmative action, as they should, but have learned that they can’t formulate their opposition in terms of how it hurts them and their families. The moment they do that, they lose the debate. Instead they argue that it hurts blacks, thus turning the tables on affirmative action supporters who claim to be black people’s best friends. It’s very clever, but still disingenuous.
The problem is that the criterion by which we measure the value and morality of these programs is how they affects minority groups, be it blacks and Hispanics or Asians. We’ve given up on racial neutrality as a concept. We don’t say that we oppose affirmative action because it’s wrong to discriminate but because it’s harming the wrong people—that is, non-whites. In that regard we’ve internalized the idea that whites deserve to be harmed.
And that’s why we’re losing the debate. Almost fifty years after this “temporary” initiative was foisted upon us, we’re still rigging the game in favor of some groups and against others. And fifty years from now we’ll still be doing the same thing and we’ll be having the same arguments because we’re unwilling to say that the state shouldn’t discriminate against any race.