President Bush's tightrope walk on affirmative action and diversity this week reflects a tension widely felt in today's America. Over the past 30 years, from boardrooms to classrooms, people have come to accept the idea that "diversity" is a good thing. But serious disagreements remain over how to achieve it, and at what cost.
The eventual success of the president's approach may turn on whether he can convince the country that ending traditional affirmative action programs would not be a step backward in the push for diversity. His critics insist that it would.
The fact that "diversity" has become a broadly popular goal -- a subtle but dramatic shift in the space of generation -- was plain in every careful step Bush took toward the eventual decision to oppose affirmative action programs under scrutiny by the Supreme Court. Bush and the Republican Party have opposed race-conscious college admissions programs for years, but the president would not say that without first praising those programs' goals.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds," Bush said Wednesday. His administration's friend-of-the-court briefs went even further: "Ensuring that public institutions are open and available to all segments of American society . . . represents a paramount government objective."
At the same time, though, Bush condemned the University of Michigan's strategy for getting there, which is to give more weight to applications from black, Hispanic and Native American students.
Bush was "following a general truth about all surveys on this issue," said Elizabeth Anderson, a Michigan philosophy professor and expert on affirmative action. "In principle, everybody is in favor of diversity and against discrimination." At the same time, she added sardonically, "there is strong opposition to anything that would address those problems."
Criticism of traditional affirmative action in education runs from right to left across the political spectrum. On the right, thinkers tend to fault the programs as crudely race-based -- a way of correcting past discrimination by discriminating against different people now and in the future. On the left, a growing number of critics say such programs are an insufficient response to a deeply flawed system of allocating the benefits of elite colleges and graduate programs.
Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier, whose provocative writings on race cost her a high-ranking position in the Clinton administration, says affirmative action is "the canary in the mine" -- that is, the outward sign of a much larger problem. "All of the concerns that seem to be collecting around affirmative action -- that it gives unfair preferences to certain people, that it is discriminatory -- should in fact be directed at admissions systems generally," she said.
Guinier cites studies that find little or no correlation between SAT scores and success in college, and other studies indicating that wealthier students do better on standardized tests. "Race," she says, "is serving as a convenient distraction. Because if you yell about the whole system, you would have to open up the entire can of worms to see that the people benefiting are not the African American students or Hispanic students but the affluent people."
Other liberal critics complain that the current notion of "affirmative action" is too cramped. When the federal government originally invoked the phrase, in a 1961 executive order ending discrimination by government contractors, it meant simply that paying lip service to equality was not enough. Contractors had to do something about it -- to take positive, "affirmative," action.
Perhaps inevitably, those actions came to be measured in terms of numbers and percentages, leading eventually to the current disputes about "quotas" and Michigan's blunt system of adding points to each minority application. Bush's preferred tactic for encouraging diversity is also numerical and blunt: He advocates admitting all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes automatically to state universities. These programs, he acknowledged, so far produce roughly the same results -- at best -- as the imperfect systems they are replacing.
It's all too little, argues Bruce Wydick, an economics professor at the University of San Francisco. In an essay published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wydick called for "a policy that doggedly pursues the college preparation of gifted students from disadvantaged communities," including "after-school tutoring programs, [and] accelerated summer school programs in literature, mathematics and science."
"The use of racial preferences in admissions," he wrote, "in many ways was like placing attractive wallpaper over a decaying social infrastructure."
Liberal critics of affirmative action programs are reluctant to see any common ground between their objections and Bush's objections. Their concern is that the blunt, number-driven systems will be replaced with lip service, not with more aggressive, creative, affirmative -- and costly -- programs.
"It's possible that if affirmative action gets abolished, some schools would" find better ways of reaching disadvantaged students, Anderson said. "Eventually there could be some salutary effects. But the immediate effect is basically a collapse of black professional education."
The truth, she said, is that traditional affirmative action programs are most useful in getting minority students into selective professional schools. Some of the doctors and lawyers that result will set up practice in underserved communities. And that is an important result in itself.
At the same time, it is hard to solve the underlying inequalities that make diversity so hard to achieve. Anderson tells of a summer program at Michigan designed to encourage girls to stick with high school science courses so they would eventually become science majors. After several years, a study was done of whether it was working.
"The program was good for white kids. It did seem to boost their participation in science," Anderson recalled. "Shockingly, the effect on minority girls was precisely the opposite. What that tells me is that we don't even know how to do this right."
Ultimately, it is a question of good faith: When Bush extolled "diversity" this week, was it spin, as his critics are charging? Or is he genuinely "not satisfied with the current numbers of minorities on America's . . . campuses" and sufficiently committed to "a serious, effective effort" to do better?
The Supreme Court crystallized the question, but the court of public opinion will decide it.