Affirmative Action’s Shaky History & Uncertain Future

William Chase, the former president of Emory and Wesleyan, has an article in the most recent issue of The American Scholar that hits upon the contemporary hazards of race-based affirmative action in higher education admissions.  There’s no doubt about where Chase is coming from: he’s a big proponent of affirmative action. But even he admits that old-school affirmative action is fast becoming a relic of the past. Pointing to popular dissatisfaction with affirmative action, the judiciary’s curtailing of many affirmative action strategies, and state legislation against it, Chase notes that, “on a variety of fronts, then, the practice now faces more resistance in this nation than ever before.”

Chase’s conclusion? The only future left for affirmative action lies in elite colleges and universities. 

Several of them—the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, Rice, Chicago—are now among the most prestigious (and wealthiest) academies in the nation…To them, I believe, we must look not only to preserve the civic value of affirmative action, but to redeem it in the eyes of the nation.

Certainly, affirmative action stands in need of redemption if it is to be continued. Were it not for Chase’s a priori position in defense of affirmative action, his essay could be read as a discourse on affirmative action’s ineffectiveness. Chase marshals a healthy array of facts and figures showing what an abject failure affirmative action has been in lifting up its intended beneficiaries: the descendants of former slaves and victims of the Jim Crow order of legal and social discrimination. Chase writes:

Affirmative action more and more functions to open the campus not only to the descendants of former slaves but to black students with different cultural and political heritages. Once championed, as in Johnson’s speech, as a means of reparation or restitution, affirmative action now turns out to be helping hundreds and hundreds of young people who have suffered the wounds of old-fashioned American racism little or not at all…At some of the most exclusive institutions (Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania), no less than two-fifths of those admitted as “black” are of immigrant origin. Such facts, as they come into view, blunt the force of arguments favoring affirmative action. Diversity and restitution are better reasons than diversity alone, but restitution seems less and less in play.

This seems to me to be the most powerful argument against modern-day affirmative action policies. The bottom line of those policies is that they provide little to no consideration for the social or economic background of an applicant. It is farcical to make judgments about community membership that are based primarily on skin color as the determining criterion of one’s “background.” The superficiality of that kind of admissions system is an affront to persons of any race.

Many, of course, would argue that colleges and universities have no business trying to right old racial wrongs by advantaging certain applicants. I disagree: the legacy of slavery and segregation continues to handicap many black communities throughout the South, and in pockets elsewhere. There is a real benefit to be had for the country’s economy and politics by breaking negative social and economic cycles in these communities, cycles that are largely the legacy of past injustice. Insofar as it helps to break these cycles, high school kids from those backgrounds who demonstrate a determination to succeed ought to receive every break possible from institutions of higher learning (as should, I might hasten to add, poor white children from chronically poor communities). In a world where the coddled sons and daughters of the upper middle class get every advantage for their shot at the Ivy League (laundry lists of do-gooder extracurriculars, SAT prep classes and tutors, private college counselors, etc.), such breaks seem basically fair.

But Chase shows that isn’t what’s happening: indeed, among black males, college attendance and graduation rates remain completely stagnant. Affirmative action has failed much of the black community. What to do about it?

Assuming that most private institutions will continue to uphold affirmative action in the near term, Chase’s overview of the issue injects a healthy note into the conversation. It’s long past time that colleges look past the nebulous benefits of “diversity” to examine the actual social impact of affirmative action. If we’re not going to aim for a strictly meritocratic system (which, in the long run, we probably should), then affirmative action ought at least aim to do what it was originally intended to do: right historical wrongs, and contribute to a system of more equal opportunity for all.

Charles S. Dameron