by Park MacDougald
Wednesday, 2
November 2022
Debate
15:13

Did immigration kill affirmative action?

Demographic changes since 1965 undermine the programme's logic
by Park MacDougald
A demonstrator against Harvard University’s admission process. Credit: Getty

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.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
27 days ago

However impassioned the arguments are for affirmative action, or an evening-up of the scales, one cannot get past some inescapable truths.
Equality of Opportunity is a laudable goal and should be argued for and worked towards by all right thinking people.
Equality of Outcome is impossible, unworkable and requires inequity against one party to achieve “equality” for the other. This should be argued against by all right thinking people.
Any and all “positive discrimination” for one group requires actual discrimination against another.
Applying artificial quotas in any sector – to try and correct perceived imbalances – almost always leads to resentment from those who feel that not everybody is there on merit and, rather than healing divisions, it actually exacerbates them.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
27 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Agreed: discrimination is discrimination and when practiced by institutions, governmental or otherwise, it risks being an excellent recruiting sergeant for groups that decent people don’t wish to encourage. Try better funding of public education so everyone gets the chance to prove themselves – meritocracy, like democracy, may just be “The worst form of government apart for all those other forms which have been tried out from time to time”.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
26 days ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Perhaps the best summation of all. Thanks.

Jon Metes
Jon Metes
27 days ago

Affirmative Action as a form of reparations? This very concept was dismissed by Socrates 2,400 years ago with these words: “We ouight not to repay injustice with injustice.” (see Plato’s ‘Crito’). And did our own mothers not teach us that’ two wrongs dont make a right’?
Not surprisingly, many of those at rhe forefront of that movement are themselves to blame for having failed to give the minorities the education they need in the first place. It gives them cover for own failures.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
27 days ago

While I am firmly in the anti-discrimination camp rather than the discriminatory affirmative action camp the interesting comment was that contained in the penultimate paragraph. How will people react if an Asian minority starts rather conspicuously carrying off many of the top prizes of life in the US? It didn’t end well for Jews who were disproportionately represented in the successful echelons of pre-WW2 German society and accordingly attracted envy and suspicion despite achieving their prominence on merit.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
24 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Om merit?

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
27 days ago

This was a very well done article that drew the appropriate historical context.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
27 days ago

As I see it, affirmative action in the US should only be used for the descendants of American slaves, not black people in general, or any other minority.

Will Rolf
Will Rolf
27 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

That is a good proposal until you get into deciding who qualifies. Most people in the southern US are mixed, some appearing to be from one or the other group. Nearly everyone would qualify as a descendant of slaves.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
26 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

If this was for children of recently freed slaves that might work, but several generations on? Would Oprah Winfrey qualify for reparations, or affirmative action?

Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
26 days ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

… and only then for a few decades, not forever.

steve nola
steve nola
26 days ago

Maybe affirmative action should be based upon economic status instead of race.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
26 days ago

Ahhh.. but race does matter, and the statistics show, as a matter of fact that Jewish and Hindu peoples in the US outperform every other in every sphere, not least in Technology and Finance.

Douglas H
Douglas H
26 days ago

Unfortunately you are right to raise the potential risks of unfettered meritocracy. That’s not a winning argument against meritocracy, but we need to be aware of the trade-offs and risks involved.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
25 days ago

One of the unfortunate side effects of affirmative action is that of being defined as an ‘affirmative action student’ – which means you really didn’t qualify to get in as much as students who actually were high achievers. So for decades now any black who got into an Ivy League school was usually assumed to be ‘affirmative action’ whether they were or not. The abolishment of this stigma will be a boon to future black students who will not have to graduate under an affirmative action scheme should it be abolished by The Supreme Court.

Last edited 25 days ago by Cathy Carron