affirmative action can’t make itself unnecessary

I spent this morning reading the oral arguments in the second round of Fisher v. Texas, the most recent Supreme Court case on affirmative action in admissions. It’s fascinating to see how the debate plays out, and how it picks up right where the debate in Grutter ended in 2003, with nothing fundamentally resolved.* One issue keeps frustrating me that I haven’t seen discussed in the secondary coverage. Several times the conversation turns to the claim made in the Grutter decision that affirmative action might only be needed for another 25 years. We’re halfway through that, the Justices note, and Scalia asks bluntly: “do you think all of this won’t be necessary in another 13 years?” But here’s the thing: affirmative action can’t make itself unnecessary.

Universities have very little control over the system that creates their applicant pool. Affirmative action will become unnecessary when there are no longer racial disparities in K-12 educational outcomes. Those disparate outcomes are in turn caused by a combination of problems within the K-12 system itself and all of other forms of discrimination and disadvantage faced disproportionately by minority students.

So why do we expect universities to make affirmative action unnecessary? Of course, there are things universities can and should do to fight racial inequality (individual scholars advocate for policies to combat racial inequality, education schools can reform curricula to try to improve K-12 teacher education, etc.). But the bigger problems can’t be solved inside the university. Even when affirmative action programs succeed at promoting diversity within the university, they won’t automatically fix anything outside it. The success of affirmative action at one stage of the life course can’t be judged by whether it makes itself unnecessary by solving problems at an earlier stage. And yet somehow the Court’s conservative justices expect universities to have an answer to questions like this one from Chief Justice Roberts:

Grutter said that we did not expect these sorts of programs to be around in 25 years and that was 12 years ago. Are we going to hit that deadline? Is this going to be done on – in your view – in 12 years?

What can the University of Texas say except the unfortunate truth that race must be a factor as long as racism is a factor? Roberts goes on to say that “look, this can’t go on forever.” But if there’s one thing the history of the US shows it’s that there is no inevitable trend towards racial progress. Racism in the US seems quite capable of going on forever.

* Ellen Berrey, Fiona Rose Greenland and I have written about affirmative action at Michigan, and the Gratz and Grutter cases in particular, in an article forthcoming in Theory & Society. Working paper version available here.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

3 thoughts on “affirmative action can’t make itself unnecessary”

  1. Interestingly, nobody (yet) is challenging factoring individual disadvantage into college admissions, although when I do my AA lecture and pose the individual disadvantage arguments, it ALSO raises lots of complaints, at least among students: “It is not fair to discriminate against me just because I am privileged.”

    Addressing issues of race net of class will continue to be an issue as long as racial segregation and various processes of discrimination and prejudice impact people of color net of class.

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  2. Yet eliminating all disparities is likely impossible and will never happen. Therefore, by your argument we’ll have AA forever. But if AA is intended to eliminate disparities, and that is demonstrably impossible, then we’re trying to do something that doesn’t make any sense.

    The American political tradition puts high value on the protection of individual rights and freedoms. That’s as it should be. But there is nothing in the Constitution or in Common Law that suggests we need to eliminate statistical disparities among groups. That is not only impossible, but also deprives individuals of fair treatment based on race or ethnicity.

    AA should be abolished.

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  3. Not sure whether Dan King was replying to the OP or me or both, but my reply: There is no problem at all with “permanent” AA if AA is understood as either (a) selecting college applicants to ensure diversity across a wide variety of characteristics or (b) taking an individual’s background into account in assessing academic promise and merit.

    In fact, there is essentially zero challenge to either of these as long as the basis of either a diversity preference or an adjustment for background is anything other than race. Nobody is objecting to preferring people from underrepresented parts of the US (e.g. rural Wyoming) or an interest in an underrepresented major (e.g. Slavic Studies) or underrepresented talents needed on campus (e.g. tuba playing). And nobody is politically objecting to considering individuals’ personal economic or education disadvantage in assessing talent, nor are they objecting to preferences for children of alumni or children of donors. Nor is there any widespread objection to highly subjective criteria such as “leadership” or “character” that allow schools to favor Whites over Asians with comparable grades and test scores, an exception being Asian American activists. (White Americans’ support for strictly meritocratic college admissions declines when they are reminded that Asians score better than Whites on these criteria.) Nor is there any organized objection to the general idea that rich people ought to be able to get anything they want, no matter how stupid or lazy they are.

    In fact, if you look at it clearly, the sociologically interesting thing is that ONLY racial/ethnic preferences are subjected to this high level of politicization and scrutiny.

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