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One byproduct of a half-century of affirmative action is that it has given many Americans the impression that blacks can’t advance without special treatment. The response to last week’s Supreme Court decision banning the use of race in college admissions suggests that even some very accomplished black professionals have internalized this belief.
Joy Reid, the MSNBC host, said in response to the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ruling that racial preferences were the only reason black people like her had access to elite schools such as Harvard. Eddie Glaude, who teaches African American studies at Princeton, said affirmative action was “the only remedy to the legacy of discrimination in admissions in American higher education” and “they’ve taken it away.” Another black academic, Jelani Cobb, wrote in The New Yorker that affirmative action “helped expand the Black middle class” and predicted that one result of the decision will be “fewer students from traditionally underrepresented minorities on college campuses.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s dissent in the case is chock-full of similar doomsaying. The nation’s first black female Supreme Court justice presents a lengthy chronicle of racial disparities in outcomes and argues that they can be linked directly to slavery and the legacy of segregation. Ending racial preferences, she writes, ignores “the well-documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry” and “will delay the day that every American has an equal opportunity to thrive, regardless of race.”
Nowhere do these critics explain why Asian college applicants, who were the plaintiffs in the case and whose ancestors were responsible for neither U.S. slavery nor its Jim Crow aftermath, should be treated worse than other groups in the present because of what whites did to blacks in the past. Nor can proponents of affirmative action explain why racial discrimination is wrong when directed at blacks but apparently fine when non-blacks are on the receiving end. Are Jackson and other advocates of racial double standards seeking justice—or revenge?
In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas chides Jackson for building her argument on racial determinism. She uses “broad observations about statistical relationships between race and select measures of health, wealth and well-being to label all blacks as victims,” writes Thomas. “Such a view is irrational; it is an insult to individual achievement and cancerous to young minds seeking to push through barriers, rather than consign themselves to permanent victimhood.”
Just as noteworthy, Thomas also takes the opportunity to push back against the notion that racial favoritism in college admissions and racial diversity on campus are prerequisites for black upward mobility. He uses the experience of students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which don’t use racial preferences in admissions, to illustrate his point. Citing studies done by the National Science Foundation and the United Negro College Fund, Thomas notes that, though most black college students don’t attend HBCUs, these schools are punching well above their weight in terms of turning out black professionals.
“To this day, they have proved ‘to be extremely effective in educating Black students, particularly in STEM,’ where ‘HBCUs represent seven of the top eight institutions that graduate the highest number of Black undergraduate students who go on to earn [science and engineering] doctorates,’” writes Thomas. He references studies that show HBCUs produce 40 percent of all black engineers, 80 percent of black judges, and half of all black physicians and lawyers. “In fact,” writes Thomas, “Xavier University, an HBCU with only a small percentage of white students, has had better success at helping low-income students move into the middle class than Harvard has.”
Thomas’s point is that the racial preferences so treasured by liberal elites are not only unconstitutional but also counterproductive. They mismatch students with schools that recruit minorities for window dressing and then fail to graduate them in a timely manner or in the majors they initially wanted to pursue. Many bright black students who could have graduated from Xavier with a degree in engineering were instead lured to Duke, where they struggled academically, perhaps switched to a softer discipline, or simply flunked out. The upshot has been fewer black mathematicians, lawyers, and physicians than we would have had in the absence of race-based admissions.
In his New Yorker essay, Jelani Cobb notes a precipitous drop in black enrollment at highly selective UCLA and UC–Berkeley after California passed Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that banned the use of race in college admissions. But Cobb omits the most important fact: black graduation rates at those schools, which had been in decline, subsequently began to increase, as did both black enrollment and graduation rates throughout the University of California system.
“Prop 209 changed the minority experience at UCLA from one of frequent failure to much more consistent success,” write Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., in their book Mismatch. “The school granted as many bachelor’s degrees to minority students as it did before Prop 209 while admitting many fewer minority students and thus dramatically reducing failure and drop-out rates.” Perhaps the biggest difference between Jackson and Thomas is that the latter has much more faith in the ability of blacks to move forward without special treatment.
Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images