Here’s a quick history quiz for you. Which nationally prominent leader said this:
“Edicts of non-discrimination are not enough. Justice demands that every citizen consciously adopt a personal commitment to affirmative action, which will make equal opportunity a reality.”
Times have changed, but on race not all that much, as far as NAACP Chairman Julian Bond is concerned. Bond whipped out Reagan’s old quote during a debate at the Library of Congress last week to argue that what was good for Reagan two generations ago is good enough for America now.
I’m not as certain of that. Sitting in the audience, I was struck by how much America’s persistent problems with race have changed, while so many of our leading affirmative action proponents have not.
Yet, I was also struck by how replacing race-based affirmative action with the class-based kind is easier to say than to do. That’s one reason why Bond opposed the evening’s proposition: “Should affirmative action be based on wealth and class rather than race and ethnicity?”
President Barack Obama thinks it should, and has said so in writing and out loud. “We have to think about affirmative action,” he said at a 2008 convention of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American journalists in Chicago, “and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.” It is safe to say that, in the fashion of President Richard Nixon opening doors to China, Obama’s position later helped him with white voters and didn’t hurt him very much with blacks.children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.” It is safe to say that, in the fashion of President Richard Nixon opening doors to China, Obama’s position later helped him with white voters and didn’t hurt him very much with blacks.
Defending Obama’s position in the debate was New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley, an expert on wage and wealth gaps. Past discrimination in jobs and lending has left such a wide wealth gap between the races, he argued, that diversity-minded colleges would end up with a healthier mix by race, ethnicity and class if they focused on household wealth as Obama suggests, instead of race.
Bond’s teammate, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, disagreed. Bollinger was president of the University of Michigan during the 2003 Supreme Court cases that upheld and clarified affirmative action at that school. Then and now, he said, “we want both racial diversity and ethnic diversity,” plus “diversity based upon income and class.” And the most effective way to do that, he said, is to take race into account, as well as class.
Otherwise, “and this has been studied by many people,” he said, “if you use only income you will increase the proportion of white students and decrease the proportion of African-American and Hispanic students.”
You can see or read the debate at the Web site of its sponsor, the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia (millercenter.org).
The debate’s other participant, John McWhorter, a best-selling author and Manhattan Institute senior fellow, was right to point out a more important hidden danger: When diversity policies lower achievement bars the policies can hurt as much as they help.
When he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, McWhorter recalled, it was only after the affirmative action ban “that efforts were actually made to teach black and Latino students throughout the state to qualify for what the admission procedures were.” It hadn’t happened before that, McWhorter said, and it wasn’t going to happen as long as state universities could rely on racial “preferences,” a word that proponents hate despite its accuracy.
With that he exposed an eternal truth: If we did the tough job of providing quality educational opportunity to every American kid from preschool on, we would not need special programs to build diverse students bodies. They’d be diverse already.
Even so, I do agree with Bond and Bollinger that too much is made of the argument that affirmative action admissions leave a stigma on black and Hispanic students. People get into colleges for all sorts of reasons—including legacy preferences, athletic scholarships and geographic diversity—without feeling stigmatized.
But in the end, it’s not how you got into college that counts; it’s how you leave.