CHAREN: Supreme Court was right to strike down race preferences

When considering the knotty problem of affirmative action, it’s important to bear in mind, as some of the Supreme Court’s dissenters failed to do, that the issue is no longer black versus white, in every sense of that term. We are a multiethnic country, and discriminating against one minority (Asians) to benefit African Americans and whites is not OK. It violates a principle enshrined in the 14th Amendment that states cannot deprive any individual of the equal protection of the laws, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declares that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Rejecting affirmative discrimination is not the same thing as saying there is no longer a problem of racism in America or that the effects of centuries of slavery and discrimination have been overcome. That would be foolish, and it is not what the court said. Rather, the majority found that continuing to discriminate on the basis of race is not the answer to persistent racism or inequality.

It’s no good to say that racial discrimination is fine if your motives are benevolent. Tell that to the Asian and other students who are rejected. It’s not as if Asians have suffered no historical discrimination, but even if they had not, the court has repeatedly held that living 17-year-olds should not be asked to bear the taint of sins committed by their ancestors (or, in the case of millions of descendants of immigrants, other people’s ancestors). That way lies grievance and resentment on the part of those disfavored. Where admission to very selective schools is concerned, it’s a zero-sum game. Someone’s win is someone else’s loss.

In addition to inviting resentment, so-called benevolent racial discrimination has other serious downsides. It leads to stereotyping. An entire industry has sprung up coaching Asian high school students how to seem less Asian in their college applications. And the beneficiaries, African American students, rather than being treated as individuals, are assumed to bring a distinctively Black perspective to the table. It’s hard enough for a freshman to figure out who he is, far less speak for an entire ethnic group. Further, Black students who are boosted by affirmative action into schools they would not otherwise be qualified to attend suffer a variety of undesirable outcomes. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out, “only 42% graduate within six years — well below the national average of 63%. Forgive me for spelling this out, but it bears emphasizing: if you are a black college student in America, you are more likely to drop out than graduate.”

And as Justice Clarence Thomas noted, racial preferences are “overinclusive, providing the same admissions bump to a wealthy Black applicant given every advantage in life as to a black applicant from a poor family with seemingly insurmountable barriers to overcome. In doing so, the programs may wind up helping the most well-off members of minority races without meaningfully assisting those who struggle with real hardship.”

And guess what, 71% of Harvard’s African American and Hispanic students come from families in the top 20% of the income distribution.

Meanwhile, historically Black colleges and universities enroll just 10% of Black undergraduates yet produce 19% of STEM graduates, 50% of Black lawyers and doctors, and 80% of Black judges.

In addition to inviting racial animosity, affirmative action saddles its “beneficiaries” with a stigma. Every Black American (and members of other preferred minorities), whether they benefited from affirmative action or not, must labor under the stigma of being an “affirmative action hire” or an “affirmative action admittee” for their entire lives. No one, themselves included, can ever be sure that their achievements are fully earned. That is corrosive.

My own view is that preferences given to the already advantaged Black kids of doctors and lawyers does nothing for those who most need a boost. Race-blind consideration or, yes, affirmative action, for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale would be more just. But it’s not enough to say we’ll replace race-based affirmative action with class-based affirmative action, because the poor are so hobbled. Some of their disadvantages are very hard for governments to affect — broken homes, dangerous neighborhoods, addicted parents. But some are susceptible to government reform, namely the schools.

A new complaint, filed with the Education Department, challenges Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preferences on the grounds that they disproportionately benefit whites. Good. Eliminate them. But we spend too much brain space obsessing about those at the very top and too little considering the millions of kids in bad K-12 schools. If the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard has the effect of focusing on the broken pipeline of education in the lower grades, it will have done far more for disadvantaged students of all ethnicities than any racial preference program.