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Affirmative action 

Few things are more intriguing than watching a liberal try and reconcile the contradictory elements of their worldview, and few things do more to discredit a political philosophy than obvious hypocrisy. The semantic gymnastics of the left in trying to reconcile their support for affirmative action, with their professed revulsion toward racial discrimination, certainly rival any performance of the Cirque du Soleil.

Yes, affirmative action is back in the news. With a recent trial court decision upholding its admissions program, Harvard University has once again found itself as the public face of one of the most divisive practices of our time.

Harvard considers race in admissions to arrive at what they consider to be their desired racial targets. While they avoid using the forbidden Q-word (quotas), their racial proportions each year seem pretty consistent, and an observer certainly might reasonably conclude that quotas do exist. Some suggest that Harvard is revisiting its former admissions policy of the early 20th century, in which they limited the number of Jewish students admitted, to prevent "too many" Jews among their student body. These days, Harvard has now updated the practice to instead prevent the admission of "too many" Asians, under the assumption that using only objective criteria like grades and test scores will result in a disproportionately Asian student body.

This puts an interesting new twist in the "fairness" justification for affirmative action. Traditionally, it was justified as a fair way to compensate black people for past discrimination, and in the minds of many, to "pay back" privileged whites for the discriminatory sins of their ancestors. But that justification doesn't work with Asians, who not only usually did not have ancestors in the country during the times of slavery and Jim Crow, but whose ancestors may have themselves suffered discrimination and poverty as well. So, if you accept the idea of group victimization, which victim class is to be deemed worthy of preferences and which is deemed deserving of punishment? How do you quantify and compare the suffering of someone's ancestors?

So, since the fairness rationale for affirmative action is unsustainable, schools like Harvard have fallen back on the diversity angle, declaring a need to achieve a diverse student body resembling the ethnic makeup of society as a whole. Most people will agree that diversity does in fact provide a benefit to students, and prior Supreme Court decisions have upheld racial discrimination when used for the diversity goal. However, the current conservative makeup of the court puts the future of affirmative action in doubt. Thus, we now find schools considering doing away with objective criteria, like grades and test scores, in favor of a more holistic approach, considering subjective traits like "personality." This will allow them to claim a race-neutral process in pursuing their desired quotas, without being quite as obvious about their intentions.

Still, even with the laudable intention of enriching the educational process, affirmative action unavoidably penalizes certain groups solely on the basis of their race and benefits others. This offends our traditional bedrock notions of fairness and our avowed determination to judge people individually, rather than as members of a group. Is the benefit of the practice worth the cost?

Sometimes overlooked in the debate is the fact that affirmative action tends to stigmatize the intended beneficiaries and deprive them of the respect and acknowledgement that they are due for their accomplishments. People intuitively understand the principles of fair competition and respect the results. If a person has an artificial advantage available, they will be widely assumed to have taken advantage of it, even though it may actually have played no role. It must be hard to accept having one's hard-won accomplishment in gaining acceptance to a prestigious school or attaining a professional position dismissed as being merely a lucky break derived from a quota used to achieve a diversity mandate.

An anecdotal example: A Latina attorney friend, who won admission to a prestigious law school on the basis on her exceptional board scores and high grades, was always quite bitter that others routinely mistakenly dismissed her as an "affirmative action admission" because she was Latina. In a very competitive environment like the legal world, such perceptions can be damaging. I imagine that her situation is not that unusual.

What sort of message does affirmative action send to its supposed beneficiaries when it is based on an officially sanctioned premise that they are incapable of succeeding in even competition, and need a preference? This is both racist and defeatist, and has been described as "the bigotry of low expectations."

The civil rights movement derived its compelling moral authority and power from a simple reliance upon the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Few of us would want to be denied opportunities merely because of the race that we were born into, and we can easily understand why others would feel the same way.

A morally compelling principle like racial equality only retains its power so long as it is applied equally, consistently, and without any exceptions for political considerations. How can it be reconciled with affirmative action? Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who enjoys arguing politics until you eventually walk away muttering in exasperation. Send a response for publication to

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