Liberals see the recent effort by Asian-American groups to shine a light on Harvard’s admission policies as another reactionary push to roll back affirmative action—and question the motives of the Justice Department in taking such initiatives seriously. They characterize the effort as the latest in a long line of resentful plaintiffs dating back to Allan Bakke and other whites who sought to end “reverse discrimination” at the University of California and the University of Texas dating to the 1970s. Liberals dig in against such efforts, whether on grounds that diversity is a vital good in itself—and worth compromising other principles for—or that America’s past history of legal racism means, in effect, that there can be no such thing as reverse discrimination.
Yet, an important truth goes unstated on both sides of the argument: affirmative action does no good for African-Americans themselves. If progressives and advocates for black advancement were honest, they would admit that racial preferences have been a disaster for their alleged beneficiaries.
Liberals should ponder the implications of what we’ve learned to date about Harvard admissions. Blacks can score 400 points lower than Asians on the SAT, and almost as much less than whites, and still get admitted. In an earlier time, blacks were told that they must be “twice as good” as whites to get into school or make partner at a law firm; they are now being told that they need only be half as good.
This understanding, as it settles into the culture, must discourage effort and initiative. Why work hard when less effort will be rewarded in the same way? Inevitably, this logic means that those African-Americans whose work really is twice as good are nonetheless suspected of being subpar—a dispiriting fate. Who would ever want to be viewed as having been hired (or retained) for reasons other than one’s capabilities—say, fear of litigation? One should not be surprised that bitterness infuses too much of contemporary African-American culture. This is the fruit of diversity liberalism.
April 2017 marked 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers—a storied milestone, widely celebrated today. The Robinson anniversary reminds us of a bygone, more constructive approach to race relations, one mediated by markets and merit, not artificial quotas and diversity mantras. By hiring black players, Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey demonstrated that he could make his rivals pay, on the field, for their racial discrimination. The Rickey approach should be our guiding principle today, too: a pox on discrimination, married to incentives for self-improvement.
Decades of affirmative action have not improved the lot of African-Americans. The beneficiaries of preferences tend to be upper-middle-class blacks who need help least: as the title of an earlier book by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason Riley puts it: “please stop helping us.” Enforcing diversity in college admissions creates new victims—primarily Asian-Americans, at the moment. It was wrong for America to deny opportunity on the basis of skin color in the past, and it is wrong today. It will always be wrong. In supporting it, liberals perpetuate race-consciousness and undermine achievement.
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