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5 July 2023

Why affirmative action failed

Higher education is not an adequate means to achieve a more just society.

By Nick Burns

On 29 June the US Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action in university admissions, a longstanding, much-debated practice that had given black and Hispanic applicants preference in the awarding of university places, with the aim of remedying historical discrimination.

Conservatives rejoiced in the victory of merit and colour-blindness; progressives lamented, auguring increased racial disparities. What are the real consequences of this decision?

It can be hard for the rest of the world to understand the US’s obsession with university admissions procedures, a technical matter in most countries. But it is no exaggeration to conclude that the fall of the affirmative action system in university admissions represents a shock to American society on at least two levels. It demonstrated the profound limitations of relying on educational opportunity as a means of achieving social justice – delivering a brutal rebuke to a widely shared conviction in US society. And it removed a pillar of the legitimating rhetoric of the US elite (or the liberal section of it), which will need to be replaced by something else.

The system, initially focused on black Americans, originated in the 1960s, conceived of as a temporary means of addressing the residual effects of racial discrimination. But over time the system expanded to include Hispanics and Native Americans, and its mission changed to one of promoting “generalised racial diversity” in universities, as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued. Court decisions in 1978 and 2003 permitting the practice also circumscribed it: no quotas were allowed, only more nebulous “goals” and “tailored use of race” meant to promote diversity as a generalised value.

Over time affirmative action took on different objectives at different levels of higher education. At the handful of universities that educate much of the US’s ruling class, it fashioned a more diverse – and thereby more politically defensible – Democratic-aligned elite without softening this stratum’s grip on power and wealth. As Douthat puts it: “By ensuring adequate representation from every major ethnic group, elite schools were relieved of the fear that if their graduating classes didn’t look like a changing America, at some point America might look elsewhere for a ruling class.”

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But these hyper-selective schools represent a minuscule fraction of American higher education. At a broader level, affirmative action represented the endeavour to make society more equal along racial lines through redistribution of educational opportunity. As the Centre for American Progress, a progressive think tank, wrote in a 2019 publication in support of the policy, under affirmative action “students of colour increase their chances of emerging from poverty and stepping into the middle class”.

These overlapping projects, often conflated under the banner of diversity in higher education, met with separate fates. The elite version succeeded, but at a steep cost to the system as a whole, while the achievements of the mass version fell woefully short of its ambitious goal.

The programme’s trajectory within the US’s elite universities has much to do with these institutions’ peculiar status as essentially aristocratic institutions in a democratic society. To survive, they are obliged to justify themselves in various ways – to present themselves to society in democratic guise. Since both Republican- and Democratic-aligned sections of the US ruling class have a presence in the elite universities (though the Democratic-aligned section tends to dominate), competing narratives emerged, under the respective headings of “meritocracy” and “diversity”.

Meritocracy: the idea that the student body should represent the most naturally talented and hardworking young people, selected by a set of objective, colour-blind standards. This is a natural fit for believers in market competition. Diversity: largely the same as the previous formula, but purporting to account, additionally, for the history and persistence of racial prejudice by seeking to ensure a demographic symmetry between the student body and the nation (though not in class terms – nearly 70 per cent of Harvard students are rich).

[See also: Against race essentialism]

It is easy to see how these concepts suit the respective political coalitions of Republicans and Democrats: the former, whiter than the nation as a whole; the latter, gradually resembling an alliance between upper-middle-class whites and minority groups. The philosophical dissatisfaction with meritocracy as an ideal among the dominant, Democratic-aligned forces in the elite US university reflected political reality. The wealthy but ethnically diverse student bodies produced under affirmative action – soon to become powerful figures in law, business, technology, media, politics, et cetera – suited the overall contours of the coalition well.

But this expedient solution came at a cost. The writer Christopher Caldwell noted how changing demography complicated the moral argument in favour of affirmative action, because a minority racial group – Asian Americans – began to lose through the necessarily zero-sum nature of the system. (The plaintiffs in the case against Harvard decided on 29 June were Asian American.) Defenders and opponents of affirmative action alike identified a loss of focus on the black Americans it was originally intended to help. “African and Caribbean immigrants and their children now account for more than 40 percent of the Black enrolment in the Ivy League, which risks crowding out the people that affirmative action was originally intended to help,” wrote Caldwell.

And it was unpopular. Polling before the June court decision showed that half of Americans disapproved of college’s considering race in admissions, while only 33 per cent approved. California, a liberal and ethnically diverse state, held a ballot measure on affirmative action in the state’s public universities in 1996. Voters rejected the practice by a wide margin. In 2020, at the apex of a wave of national concern over racial inequality, the state put affirmative action on the ballot once more. It lost again. This, it seemed, was enough for the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to feel confident putting paid to the system.

Already the debate has begun over what comes next. The Supreme Court’s decision said that while race could not be employed categorically in admissions, “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life” was permissible – though universities could not use this justification to continue the old policy. It was a somewhat equivocal verdict: it remains to be seen how much the elite universities will court further legal challenge by seeking to stick close to the old system.

But broadly speaking it will be crucial, as much for the fate of the universities themselves as for the liberal section of the ruling elite to which they are tied, that an alternative narrative of support be identified. The pressing question now is what that will be – with meritocracy not likely to be found a suitable replacement.

Debates over affirmative action in the US are so charged in part because they concern questions of moral desert: who deserves what. But the issue also involves a separate moral dimension that is less controversial. This is the American conviction – profound, longstanding and broadly held – in the power of education to transform the lives of individuals for the better, and to do the same for society.

American thinkers from WEB Du Bois to John Dewey have testified to education’s power for social transformation. The conception of education as a means of self-improvement and self-advancement comes close to an article of faith across large parts of US society. Affirmative action’s original purpose, in its Sixties-era form, was to make good on this socially transformative potential: to reverse injustice by offers of education to the victims of racial discrimination.

How realistic was this aim? Besides its humane virtues, a university education is indisputably a powerful economic benefit to Americans who receive one: it allows one to command higher-paying work. But obtaining a bachelor’s degree is tremendously expensive in the US and usually requires putting oneself in debt. Underlined by a separate court decision that has struck down the Biden plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt per borrower is the grim fact that in today’s America, seeking a university education can result in negative, as well as positive, economic mobility.

Admission at most US universities is not significantly competitive, limiting the influence of affirmative action policies. As the New York Times reported: “Fewer than 200 selective universities are thought to practice race-conscious admissions, conferring degrees on about 10,000 to 15,000 students each year who might not otherwise have been accepted.”

In other words, a drop in the bucket in a nation of 330 million. There are universities in America that manage to bring minority students up from poverty on a large scale. But by one measure, the best are mostly in California – where affirmative action has been forbidden for decades. There, the largest public university system in the world assists many thousands of young people from the state’s upwardly mobile Latino population in entering the middle class each year. These universities do not create ab nihilo the upward mobility they lend their graduates: that is done by economic factors, like the demand for skilled labour in the state. On a collective scale, opportunity is a factor of social conditions.

The social impact of educational opportunity in isolation is limited. As the wiser advocates of affirmative action have recognised, “college admissions preferences cannot aim to reform the entire lopsided social structure”. And in considering a programme whose trajectory spanned the neoliberal age, it is possible that in the eyes of government and society alike, the chief virtue of affirmative action in admissions was that it was voluntary and cost nothing.

For this same reason it could have little hope of succeeding in its goal. Without improvement to primary and secondary schools, without providing more poor minority families with the economic conditions that allow for the luxury of taking an active interest in education, affirmative action in university admissions was bound to become an isolated beachhead from which significant social change could not emerge. In its wake, Americans at large must confront the uncomfortable reality that higher education is not an adequate means to achieve a more just society.

[See also: Why wealth trumps whiteness]

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