Are affirmative action preferences “worse” than other sorts of admissions preferences?

May 14

My article on the Schuette case was written before the Supreme Court decided the case, but it will still be useful to those interested in the constitutional and policy debate over affirmative action preferences.  Careful readers will note that some of my criticisms of the Sixth Circuit decision also apply to Justice Sotomayor’s dissent.  Here’s the abstract:

The question presented to the Supreme Court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is, “Whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admissions decisions.” Given that the Supreme Court barely tolerates affirmative action preferences, it is exceedingly unlikely to endorse a lower court ruling that overturns a state ban on them.Nevertheless, it is worth examining the reasoning of the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Schuette, because it exemplifies many interesting nuances regarding the debate over the constitutionality of affirmative action preferences, nuances that were mostly ignored in the dissenting opinions. Judge Cole’s opinion demonstrates (1) that despite decades of jurisprudence permitting state university affirmative action preferences only if used for “diversity” purposes, its legal advocates, including federal judges, still act under the assumption that the purpose of preferences is to benefit students who are members of underrepresented minority groups; (2) some affirmative action advocates cling to an obsolete model of American politics that posits that African Americans and members of other minority groups lack any substantial political power; (3) some affirmative action advocates tend to discuss the issue as if the only groups affected are African Americans and whites, neglecting both that Asian Americans tend to be harmed by university admissions’ preferences, and that African Americans are a shrinking minority of those eligible for preferences, with Hispanics a significantly larger and faster-growing demographic group; and (4) affirmative action advocates tend to be dismissive of the claim that race is different and more problematic than other criteria that university officials may consider in admissions, for moral, historical, and practical reasons. While not unassailable, these reasons seem to provide a significant non-arbitrary rationale for state voters to ban official reliance on race and ethnicity.

Here’s my elaboration on point number four, which addresses one reason why people may find racial and ethnic more troubling than, say, geographic, alumni, or athletic preferences, at least when provided by government institutions:

Racial and ethnic identity are uniquely dangerous attributes on which basis to allow the government, including government-sponsored universities, to make decisions. History, and for that matter current events, are replete with examples of different racial and ethnic groups committing violence to win government favor for their group at the expense of rival groups. Certainly, white Americans, especially but not exclusively in the South, used the government to benefit themselves at the expense of African Americans.

Whatever positive effects doling out government largesse (including college admissions slots) by race must be weighed against the danger that such policies will encourage people to organize themselves politically by race and ethnicity. Such organization would cause the political process to become more responsive to specifically racial and ethnic organization, which in turn would lead to increased societal divisiveness, and could ultimately result in significant social disorder.

Put another way, the other sorts of preferences that universities use in determining admission or may not be sound policy, but they are not inherently dangerous to society. To my knowledge, there have been no civil wars, riots, or genocides sparked by government seeming to favor athletes, university alumni, musicians, people from remote states, and other groups preferred in university admissions. By contrast, world history and current events are filled with example of racial and ethnic hostility causing violence, war, and destruction. Indeed, affirmative action itself has sparked violence, especially in India, where ethnic tensions coexist with caste tensions. As Thomas Sowell points out, “complacency is never in order when racial or ethnic relationships are concerned, for even generations of peaceful coexistence can turn ugly when the right circumstances and the right demagogue come together.”

UPDATE: It’s perhaps worth noting that it’s not surprising that liberals, who tend to be much more optimistic about well-meaning government interventions than are conservatives and especially libertarians, worry a lot less about this than conservatives and libertarians do.  But I think it would improve the debate if liberal proponents of affirmative action preferences would more often acknowledge that this is a legitimate or at least plausible concern, not motivated by racial animus, even if they believe that the concern is trumped by the good they believe preferences do.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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