Affirmative Action Thoughts.

The League’s Mark Thompson has a  great post up on  affirmative action that has had me thinking about the topic all evening.  I’m pretty familiar with most of the common objections to affirmative action, and I’m particularly good at convincing folks that affirmative action isn’t a form of “reverse racism” or bigotry against white people.  Though, to be fair, I’m good at it (and presumably, so is Mark) because the facts are on my side: institutionalized discrimination has had a tremendously negative (and quantifiable) impact on educational attainment with minority communities.  Affirmative action programs (in college admissions at least) do target academically successful minorities who lack the wealth or support networks of their white peers.  And affirmative action programs have successfully integrated minorities and women into the elite spheres of American life.  Indeed, as sociologist Orlando Patterson repeatedly notes in his book The Ordeal of Integration, affirmative action easily ranks as one of this country’s most successful policy undertakings.

Despite all of this, affirmative action programs – and especially those in college admissions – are deeply controversial, and I’ve spent the better part of my afternoon and evening trying to figure out why that is.  Clearly, some of the opposition to AA comes from perfectly obvious sources: Pat Buchanan-esque white ethnic parochialism, a libertarian/conservative commitment to a “color-blind” state, a sincere belief that racism and sexism don’t significantly impact the lives of women and minorities, and of course, plain old racism/misogyny.  But I think that for a significant number of people opposed to affirmative action, the debate is only superficially about preferential treatment (they may or may not realize this), and instead, is really a debate over the purpose of the university and of a university education.

I don’t have any data to back this up (and please excuse me as I think out loud), of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if AA opponents are inclined to describe university as some combination of education and credentialing – if you’re smart (as defined by some objective metric) you attend a “good” school so that you can get a “good” job on the strength of your credentials.  By contrast, supporters of affirmative action are probably more inclined to think of higher education as some combination of education and socializing.  In this vision, the goal isn’t really to find the highest academic achievers as much as it is to find and place the individuals who will “enrich” the institution in some (usually) ill-defined way.  Although these certainly aren’t mutually exclusive visions of higher education, you can imagine how they could find themselves in conflict.  If your goal is to enrich the institution then you will occasionally elevate those students who don’t quite meet the ‘objective’ criteria for admission.  The same is true of the opposite; if you elevate the academically successful without considering backgrounds or demographics, you run the risk of leaving yourself with a painfully homogeneous institution.

These are issues that don’t receive much attention in mainstream conversation, except when viewed through the lens of affirmative action and other forms of preferential treatment.  And while there isn’t really much of a “point” to this post, I do think that you can shed some light as to why opposition to AA programs is long-lasting and calcified if you begin to think of affirmative action in these terms (and if you assume that there really is a split of public opinion on this sort of thing, which might not actually be the case).


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Grump

    Another thing about the Anti-Affirmative Action argument is that it fails to mention what the college campuses are depriving themselves of by excluding those who feel slighted by such programs. By their exclusion, what is the university missing? Its never questioned what their perceived contributions to the college campus are going to be. Its as though(using the cartoon as an example), that by eliminating the minority student, you still have a diverse, functional( and still stellar) student body.

  • Micah

    I attended Stanford a while ago, and spent some time working in the admissions office, so I feel I have at least a reasonably informed perspective on how admissions work at a highly competitive institution. And what I’ve observed, and fully believed, is that the “objective measures” argument is a total canard, for the simple purpose that almost all of the applicants at tops schools would exceed any reasonable place you’d set those criteria. The admissions office actually cares less about academic specifics than you’d imagine, because everyone is REALLY smart and REALLY qualified. What’s the difference between a 1380 and a 1510 on your SATs? Not much. Or the difference between a 3.96 and a 3.79. Stanford liked to brag that they could fill an entire class with students they reject with perfect SAT scores. They spend a lot of time on the softer stuff – essays, recs, and most importantly, how compelling the entire portrait of the candidate is. I have no idea why diversity wouldn’t be a part of this, and to some extent, wonder if it even could be removed. Most of these schools tout their diverse classes – along several dimensions – so it follows that significant racial diversity would be seen as desirable, and, most likely, as a desirable result of the process.

  • I think you’re definitely onto something here. Add in the difference between thinking about higher ed–especially at “good” schools–as a “reward” for “deserving” individuals (which is very in keeping with conservative attitudes towards “success” more broadly) and thinking about higher ed as a “public good,” which is in line with a lot of liberal ideas about things like public education, social suppoprt services, etc.

  • what micah said. and i’ll add that “objective” criteria and “merit” are subjective too. who is the more deserving student? the one from an upper-middle class family who went to private school and scores 1400 on her SATs, or the one from a rural alabama county with a 40% poverty rate who earns 1200?

    the SAT is “objective,” right? 1400 is higher than 1200 and she should get in on “merit,” right?

    there are so many ways to argue *for* affirmative action that i’m hard pressed to believe people who argue that it’s reverse discrimination and aren’t speaking in code.