Comes a Time: Affirmative Action Outmoded?

Could affirmative action actually reduce the number of women entering college?

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a California case that could determine the fate of affirmative action in college admissions and, by extension, in all of American society. The kneejerk liberal response is one of alarm and disgust–just another backdoor assault on multiculturalism and a way for rich white boys from the Power Elite to assure their entrances to Harvard and Yale. Allow me to commit liberal heresy by saying that this liberal male thinks it may be a good thing for multiculturalism if the court trashes affirmative action. It’s an ideal that’s long past its sell-by date.

“What!?” you cry. Let’s start with this. If the court upholds that ideal that race can be used as an admissions criterion in California, the immediate effect will be that qualified Asian students will be wait-listed and lesser-qualified white students will take their place. Asian-heritage individuals constitute just 5.6% of the U.S. population, but they will make up 46% of next fall’s incoming class at UCal Berkeley (as opposed to just 30% Caucasian). Taking fewer Asians would have some effect on black and Latino admissions, but California data shows that only 15% of African Americans and 13% of Latinos obtain a bachelors degree. (The graduation rate for whites is 31%; it’s 62% for Asians.) Put another way, there simply aren’t enough qualified black and Latino students to make up the gap if California were to halve the number of Asian students it accepts. It couldn’t even fill the classrooms with good students if it was truly “diverse” and dropped the acceptance rate to something close to Asian Americans’ overall representation in society.

To evoke the title of a Neil Young song, comes a time–and this may be it for affirmative action. Not because inequity has been erased from American society, but because affirmative action is no longer the proper vehicle for addressing it. Consider another angle. Affirmative action was also designed to protect women and it has certainly helped them knock down social barriers (though it’s only dented the glass ceiling). Liberals too often view the present through the eyes of the past when it comes to correcting historic patterns of injustice. Here’s a modern reality: by nearly every educational standard, girls outperform boys in American schools. It’s not even close–girls are kicking male butt! What this means is that if affirmative action were to be replaced by race- and gender-blind admissions, way more women would be in college and far fewer males would be admitted. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. They already outnumber males 57% to 43%, but they also continue their performance dominance. (Just over half of students entering college earn a degree within six years, but the degree obtainment rate is 10% higher for women.) This is to say that affirmative action targets may be doing more to protect Ivy League slots for the male offspring of the Power Elite than blind admissions would yield.

Liberals need to consider that well-intended affirmative action policies may actually being perpetuating the slowness by which multiculturalism and social justice intersect. Perhaps we have spent too much time worrying about making places like Harvard and Yale “look like America.” This is a distraction; one generally goes to places such as these because one has little interest in being part of the hoi polloi. We can bemoan it from here to Sunday, but after decades of affirmative action we’re still left with this: it’s the Ivy League for the rich, state colleges for the middle class, and community colleges for the poor. Affirmative action too often addresses problems hard to solve because–to evoke an old slogan–the horse has already left the barn. It does nothing to tackle the question of why there are, relatively speaking, so few qualified students among African Americans, Latinos and, yes, white males.

Comes a time. Liberals should consider giving up an outmoded concept (affirmative action) and embracing some things that would really matter: a new war on poverty, equal funding for all school districts, state-mandated curriculums, tighter high school graduation requirements, an end to college legacy admissions, caps on college tuition, and increased public funding for colleges.

As unpalatable as it may sound, it may also be time for liberals to stop excusing  the inexcusable and get on board with some cultural issues that would improve educational achievement. Bill Cosby has long been vocal in asserting that hip-hop culture often promotes violence, sexism, irresponsibility, and oppression psychosis among black males and has the net effect of producing Stepin’ Fetchits rather than George Washington Carvers. I’ll let him speak for the black community, but I’ll say that white American males are also in trouble if we continue to accept the idea that, in high school,  books are for girls and sports are for boys. Don’t get me started on the myriad ways in which popular culture and partisan politics make stupidity a badge of honor! That’s a whole other rant.

To return to the issue at hand, although I’m sure that many of my fellow liberals will disagree, I’ll say it again–affirmative action was a noble idea that has outlived its original purpose. It’s time for new strategies. Comes a time.

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