November 2, 2022 - 3:13pm

There may be no issue that so cleanly divides America’s elites from its ordinary people as affirmative action. Although polling on the issue is limited before the mid-1980s, what data we do have suggests that somewhere around three-quarters of the electorate has consistently opposed the use of racial preferences, whether in college admissions or government contracting.

Today, some 74% of Americans, including 59% of black Americans, agree that race should not be a factor in college admissions. Between 1996 and 2020, as Richard Hanania has noted, affirmative action appeared on state-level ballot initiatives nine times, where it was rejected every time but once. And yet establishment opinion on the subject is more firmly supportive of affirmative action today than at any time in the past.

That means there is likely to be considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth if the Supreme Court strikes down the practice, as it is widely expected in two cases now before the court, concerning admissions practices at the University of North Carolina and Harvard. Since the 1978 ruling Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, American colleges have been prohibited from using racial quotas, but have been allowed to take race into consideration alongside other factors in order to foster “diversity” on campus.

The question before the court now is whether the diversity interest is still compelling enough for schools like Harvard to preserve “holistic” admissions processes that discriminate — de facto if not explicitly — against white and especially Asian applicants and in favour of black and Hispanic ones. The court’s six conservative justices seem sceptical that it is. 

In a sense, what we are witnessing is America’s affirmative action regime collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Affirmative action, understood as preferential treatment for racial and ethnic minorities, is a legacy of the mid-20th century, when the US was still by and large a biracial country. Whites were an overwhelming majority, African-Americans were a persecuted minority, and other groups, such as Latinos and Asians, were demographically insignificant.

Everyone understood that the intent of these programmes was to discriminate in favour of black people to make up for centuries of de jure and de facto discrimination against them. Yet Bakke held that such explicit racial discrimination was unconstitutional, requiring the elevation of “diversity” as a fig leaf to continue the practice — under a more euphemistic name, to be sure, but with the same result. 

The problem is that, thanks to immigration, America’s demographics have changed significantly since the early 1960s — as has the practical import of race-conscious policies like affirmative action. Non-Hispanic whites have dropped from 85% to less than 60% of the US population and are set to fall further in the future; Latinos have grown from around 4% to 18.7%, and Asians, once statistically negligible, now make up more than 5% of the country’s population and a far greater share of its high-achieving students. 

The result is that “diversity”, once a legal fudge for what was in fact a form of reparations for black Americans (which is how many Americans continue to understand affirmative action), has become the sole justification for a system that arbitrarily punishes some recent immigrants while favouring others, for reasons having to do with the racial politics of the country before any of them arrived here. 

These same demographic changes have also undermined the original moral case for white people to accept the system, however grudgingly. One might say that a white applicant should accept having to score higher on standardised tests than a descendent of slaves, given the historical disadvantages that have shaped the latter’s destiny. But the current system tells this white applicant they should also accept having to score higher than the child of well-off professionals from Buenos Aires or Lagos simply because the latter can check the appropriate box. This is not a very compelling pitch. 

But advocates of purely meritocratic admissions should also be careful what they wish for. As Malcolm Kyeyune and Marty MacMarty have argued, in East Asia, where admission to elite universities is based solely on test scores, education is a hellish rat race in which students regularly drive themselves to depression, madness, and even suicide in preparation for high-stakes tests. And even though defenders of affirmative action will rarely put the issue in these terms, the truth is that what schools like Harvard are doing is selecting a national elite. Having that elite be 40-50% Asian, as might happen under meritocratic admissions policies, could make other groups feel they have little stake in the system.  

It remains to be seen what sort of system will emerge if and when race-conscious admissions policies are struck down. If history is any guide, schools like Harvard will find a way to get the demographic balance they want. But one can hope that whatever college admissions regime comes next, it will feature less cant and obfuscation than the one we currently have, which is based more than anything on the defence of untruths (i.e. nobody discriminates against Asians) that everyone knows are false.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet