The Magazine

The Price Was High

Affirmative action and the betrayal of a colorblind society.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By GEORGE LEEF
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Almost no one understood it at the time, but Lyndon Johnson’s speech at Howard University in June 1965 marked a disastrous change in civil rights policy. Previously, the civil rights movement had sought to overturn the entrenched, often legally mandated discrimination that was the legacy of Jim Crow, and bring about the colorblind society in which people would be judged (as Martin Luther King put it) by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Affirmative Action

Johnson, however, argued in favor of using government power to make the races equal, thereby opening up an entirely different view of what it meant to advocate civil rights: namely, preferences in favor of people who happened to come from certain minority groups. The spirit of this new approach to civil rights was captured in an unguarded comment Justice Thurgood Marshall allegedly made during the debate over the DeFunis case in 1974: “You guys have been practicing discrimination for years. Now it is our turn.”

Even though advocates of civil rights continued to pay lip service to the ideal of a colorblind society, many saw that they would benefit from shifting to demands for “affirmative action.” They began to insist on quotas for minority admissions to elite colleges and universities, workforces at companies and government agencies, and recipients of government contracts. Today, obligations to satisfy racial quotas (even though they cannot be called such) are very nearly ubiquitous in America.

This deep and measured book offers an overwhelming argument against the notion that we need the “good” racial preferences of affirmative action to overcome the undoubtedly bad effects of the old regime. Russell Nieli contends that the only thing affirmative action has accomplished is turning the country into “a confederation of contending tribes” where ancestry trumps individual merit. 

Nieli, who teaches politics at Princeton, shows that our system of racial preference is a fatally flawed and counterproductive attempt to right old wrongs. Instead of healing the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow, it keeps them sore and festering. It encourages beneficiaries to rely on ethnicity rather than self-improvement to get ahead. And it tells Americans who are not part of a favored group to accept unfair treatment meekly, in the name of social justice. 

One of Nieli’s principal arguments is that affirmative action has become a crutch which harms those it is supposed to help. 

Racial preference policies have lulled substantial segments of the black middle class into complacency and half-hearted performance in our increasingly education-focused world. 

He supports his case by citing the research of the late Berkeley sociologist John Ogbu, whose study of black high school students in the wealthy Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights revealed the malign influence of racial preferences. Ogbu found that those students, while suffering none of the handicaps of being “disadvantaged,” nevertheless performed poorly in school. The reason? They knew that, with the wind of affirmative action at their backs, mediocre work was good enough.

This mindset carries over into college. As Nieli points out, nearly all of our top schools bend over backwards to create a “diverse” student body: They admit applicants who have (or claim to have) “minority status” even when their academic profiles are significantly weaker than those of white and Asian students who must be rejected to make room. Once in college, many of those admitted to make the diversity numbers look good continue to coast, often gravitating toward soft academic departments where grades are high but little or nothing of value is learned. 

Nieli also adduces strong evidence for the “mismatch” argument: that admitting academically weaker students hurts them because they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage compared with their classmates, especially in disciplines in which knowledge is cumulative. We would have more minority mathematicians and scientists if it weren’t for affirmative action mismatching students with universities that are too demanding for them. 

Zealots who insist that racial preferences must be maintained avoid this argument, usually by changing the subject to the claimed benefits that white and Asian students derive from “diversity” on campus. This was the keystone in Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in the Grutter case (2003): She was content to take the University of Michigan’s word that great benefits flow from having a diverse student body. 

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