One of my perpetual frustrations with Andrew Sullivan’s work is that he tends to talk about race through so many layers of abstraction that it’s impossible to see actual people and their actual, real-world needs. This frequently strikes when he is flirting with race science again, and then can’t quite understand why people get so offended. And it’s all over this missive on affirmative action. The post has all the standard calling cards of right-wing opposition to affirmative action policies: asking for a race blind system without bothering to consider the history that makes the system not race blind at all, suggesting that the people who want to fight America’s legacy of history are the real racists, and using Asian Americans as a rhetorical tool against that effort. What makes arguments like this so frustrating is that we know very well what moving to a “race blind” system means: precipitous declines in black and Hispanic enrollment.
California’s Proposition 209 gives us what some of my colleagues like to call a natural experiment. Observe the effects of that policy on black and Hispanic enrollment:
1998, as you may have guessed, was the year that Proposition 209’s effects first hit the system. The result was a sudden and major decline in black and Hispanic combined enrollment. 2.3% might not seem like a lot to you, but in a vast system like the UC system, you’re talking about thousands and thousands of students. Ah, but the gap closed! Problem solved! No. Number one, the gap closed in large measure because of efforts to increase black and Hispanic enrollment without technically violating 209, such as the provision that allows the top 10% of any public California high school to attend a UC school. Those measures are being targeted by exactly the people who Andrew lauds in his post. Does he support ending those, too? More importantly:
The total percentage has rebounded, but only because of an ever-larger percentage of minority students in the state! The gap between the proportion of those students in the state at large and in the UC system grew enormously after Prop 209 and has remained steady since. That is the reality that we’re talking about: ending affirmative action programs writ large will result in even lower enrollments for our most vulnerable racial groups. Our university system already looks nothing like our country as a whole, with system-wide gaps between the number of black and Hispanic students enrolled and in our society writ large. The inevitable result– the undeniable, unambiguous result– of the policies preferred by those who are opposed to affirmative action is even fewer of these students. We know what happens when you end affirmative action. That is reality. So let’s stop with all the obfuscation and abstraction, shall we?
This is a question that people like Andrew absolutely have to answer if they want to grapple with this issue in an honest way: are you comfortable with a university system with incredibly low percentages of black and Hispanic students? With percentages of black and Hispanic students that are far lower than their averages in the population? That’s what you’re actually advocating for when you call for an end to affirmative action. We know that. We don’t have to guess. Andrew spills a lot of ink weeping for a plaintiff who won’t be able to go to Harvard. For her, the alternative was likely… going to Cornell, or Brown, or Dartmouth. (The horror! The horror!) For students like those in the UC system, the demise of race-based affirmative action can be the difference between attending a 4-year university or not at all. And if you oppose affirmative action then what, exactly, is the alternative for solving our enormous race-based economic and social inequalities? The self-same people who oppose affirmative action are the ones who oppose redistributive social programs! What makes this all so infuriating is that going to college and getting an education is exactly the way that conservatives say they want underrepresented minorities to get ahead. It’s the work hard, fly right, bootstraps vision of racial justice. I have no doubt that Andrew earnestly wants to end the massive gaps in quality of life between the races in contemporary American life. But what’s his plan? If “no” to reparations and “no” to affirmative action, 50 years after the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, how exactly do we get to racial economic equality?
Are things just getting better with time? Are the white-black wealth and income gaps closing through slow and steady progress? No:
So what are we going to do, exactly, to fix this?
This whole debate depends on a flatly bogus notion of what college is, or what our country is. There is no such thing as meritocracy. There has never been anything resembling meritocracy. Not in colleges and not in our economy writ large. Anyone even remotely familiar with the history of our higher education system is aware that the system began as an explicit method for perpetuating received advantage. The notion of merit only began to creep in when America’s vast inequalities became too glaring to ignore. Andrew mentions the legacy of anti-Semitism in higher education and equates the current standing of Asian Americans to the past standing of Jews in that context. That’s a ludicrous comparison; our elite colleges were involved in an open and direct conspiracy to exclude Jewish students at all costs, whereas Asian American students attend US colleges far out of proportion with their overall percentage of our society. But he might stop and think about what that legacy actually tells us about our college system. No honest person with a minimum amount of understanding of our system would ever conclude that it has ever been anything resembling a meritocracy. Affirmative action has been one of the only genuine attempts to forcibly reduce the inherent inequality of our entire system. In its place, opponents propose… nothing.
Here’s what I want everyone to ask themselves: why does California’s 10% provision work as a means of introducing racial diversity? Why would allowing the top 10% of a public high school’s graduating class into a UC school function as a de facto system of racial affirmative action? After all, if we live in a meritocracy, other than in our terribly racist college system I mean, how could it be the case that this program funnels black and Hispanic students into college? Why, it works because we live in segregation, less explicit but no less powerful than in 1950. Because we have black towns and Hispanic towns and white towns. Because we have white high schools and black high schools and Hispanic high schools. Because our entire system is set up to perpetuate racial inequality. And to blame that inequality on the very black and Hispanic students who sweat under the burden of centuries of racism and direct oppression, whose parents are far poorer and less well educated than those of their white and Asian American peers, who suffer compared to white students according to every major metric of economic and social success we have, is unconscionable. Don’t talk to me about race blind colleges in a country you know to be filled with racial inequality. You want race blind college admissions? Cool. Close the enormous wealth gap first. Close the income gap first. Stop waging a War on Drugs that functions in every meaningful sense as a war on poor minorities first. Stop incarcerating black and Hispanic parents at vastly higher rates. You end the systems of structural oppression first, and then we can talk about colleges being race blind.
Asking for race blind admissions in a world you know to be deeply racist is just dishonest. That’s all.