Affirmative Action II

In a 2013 post, I took aim at Affirmative Action, describing it as immoral, because inherently racist, and un-American, because it runs counter to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. I argued that both simple justice and our nation’s ideals require that we treat each other as free individuals, equal in rights and before the law, rather than as members of groups to be favored or disfavored based on innate, involuntary and irrelevant considerations.

Since then, I’ve come across some ideas that have pushed me to think about the likely adverse individual consequences, and about the shifts in social paradigms, that have come about as a result of the widespread promotion of skin-color diversity as a near-universal and effectively mandatory goal of our government, our universities and major public institutions.

One possible consequence is the adverse effect of Affirmative Action on its intended beneficiaries described by Gail Heriot, a professor of law at UC San Diego and a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights ( (H/t, Instapundit). In the linked article, Heriot argues that:

“The assumption behind the fierce competition for admission to elite colleges and universities is clear: The more elite the school one attends, the brighter one’s future. That assumption, however, may well be flawed. The research examined recently by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights provides strong reason to believe that attending the most competitive school is not always best — at least for students who aspire to a degree in science or engineering.”

In other words, the students who find themselves overmatched in, say, a freshman physics or pre-med course because they are with students who got there better prepared tend to become discouraged and shift into less rigorous courses of study. Result: higher minority dropout rates in the sciences and fewer minority participants in rigorous, high-prestige professions. In contrast, an environment in which all students find themselves in a narrow band with regard to preparation and aptitude might be more conducive to perseverance on the parts of those of whatever race who are genuinely inclined toward such studies.

A different kind of social consequence was described by Heather MacDonald:

“By perpetuating a false narrative about its own racism, Yale, like the vast majority of colleges and universities today, encourages its minority students to think of themselves as victims. That mentality is contrary to fact and will hinder those who adopt it from fully seizing the boundless opportunities … “


MacDonald’s idea is that the “false narrative” of omnipresent, ongoing racism damages the supposed victims of such alleged racism by disempowering them, providing false excuses for the shortcomings that they (and all of us) must deal with forthrightly if we are to succeed and creating an insuperable wall between the races.    

Heriot’s and MacDonald’s ideas seem broadly consistent with how people might be expected to deal – both personally and in terms of shared cultural assumptions – with situations in which they know that their classmates likely had higher test scores and are having an easier time keeping up.       


Just as pernicious is the effect Affirmative Action might have on the attitudes of non-minority students about their minority classmates. If it’s commonly known that members of a particular group are routinely admitted with much lower test scores, how can other students help but be tempted to think of a member of that group that ’he or she is probably less able than I’?

I hardly need mention that such an assumption would be deeply unfair to those minority-classmates who are as well prepared as their classmates. (Or that as things stand the white student is probably looking at his Asian-American classmate and guessing that her scores are much higher than his – and that in that, odds are, he’s right).

Ethnicity-based admissions discrimination, positive or negative, cannot help but further divide us. We lose some of our individuality in seeing ourselves and others – and expecting to be treated – as members of groups that we didn’t choose and cannot escape. Under such circumstances, people should be expected to try to advantage their own groups over others, so battle becomes tribal.  

Without ethnicity-based admissions discrimination, students would presumably be more inclined to look at their classmates as their academic equals, friends and rivals – as the individuals they are – irrespective of their ethnicities.


In the foregoing paragraphs I described admissions processes as being largely functions of test scores and – implicitly – skin colors. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Applicants’ less-readily quantifiable skills and life stories are, and should be, weighed heavily in schools’ determinations. The applicant who has shown the talent and determination to reach a finish line with the others, while having started behind, has shown more promise than his or her competitors.

What I object to is the unfairness of weighing skin color per se as a determining factor. Apparently “positive” discrimination is no less wrong than old-fashioned racism; indeed, they are morally indistinguishable.


The paradigmatic social costs of Affirmative Action – and government-implemented-or-enforced discrimination generally – are high. To justify the ongoing racial discrimination inherent in these programs, the ideals of equality before the law and merit-based opportunity must, to a greater or lesser extent, be jettisoned. (Indeed, the latest push from “diversity”-crats is to abolish standardized tests for all sorts of positions rather than acknowledge that some candidates are better qualified than others).

Even America’s history must be distorted (c.f., The 1619 Project) to make racial oppression the central and (crucially) irredeemable narrative of American history. Institutional (and individual) racism must be omnipresent and irredeemable, you see, or uncomfortable questions will be asked about the fundamental fairness of the ongoing (“positive-in-intent”) discriminations on the basis of race – on which millions now depend. Hence the amorphous and non-falsifiable, but absurd, accusations of white privilege against even those who are often derisively called ‘poor white trash’.

In the landmark 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, a 5-4 majority allowed racially discriminatory admissions policies at The University of Michigan. Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, averred that such policies should be seen as a temporary departure from America’s legal and social traditions – going so far as to write that 25 years should suffice.

Since then, Affirmative Action and its analogs, racial preferences in government (and, increasingly, public company) hiring and contracting have become much more deeply embedded in American society.


Who are we? What, beyond the legal definition of citizenship, does it mean to be American? Do we have – or want – a shared culture? Our national ideal used to be of a melting pot – where people from all over the world joined a culture that was something new and different – based not on ancient tribes, but ideals of individual freedom and the rule of law. Now, as Americans become re-accustomed to being advantaged or disadvantaged based on their skin color or ethnic heritage, older identities – and animosities – are reasserting themselves with renewed vigor.

Implicit in Affirmative Action and other racial preferments (or constraints) is that we are the white people (in particular: the elite, decision-making white people), and they are the minorities who need to be advantaged in the case of some, and must be disadvantaged (to protect us) in the case of others.  This is a very, very different way of seeing the world than the idea that we are all Americans, proud, free and equal both in God-given rights and before the law.

I see little likelihood that racial preferences will be voluntarily abandoned, as O’Connor implied they should be, by 2028. Entitlements of any kind – financial or racial – are easy for government to give, and nearly impossible to take back. They create their own ferocious and permanent constituencies.

Affirmative Action – like institutionalized racism of any kind – is a poison to America’s unique ideals. We cannot have a genuinely free society that consists of favored or disfavored castes into which all are born and none can escape. We are all equal before the law, or we are not. And if we choose not, we will have thrown away the very soul of what has been the world’s most successful civilization.

M.H. Johnston         

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