The Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admission policy — on the grounds that the public interest is served through the promotion of a racially diverse student body — is an act of infantilization whose true gist is heard in the goo-gooing voice of a doting parent: You poor dear little things, we know you can’t make it on your own, but don’t worry, mommy and daddy will help. We’ll hold your hand, stroke your head, give you a boost up the stairs, and we’ll do it for as long as it takes, until you tell us you don’t want us to do it anymore. So upsy daisy! Now who’s the cute little minority? Who is it? Is it you? Is it you? Yes, it is! Yes, it is!
Logically, to be sure, the decision makes little sense. The Court’s notion of a public interest in racial diversity effectively enshrines bogus categories like “black people” and “white people” as grounds for discriminating for or against individuals. In reality, however, there’s not even a coherent definition of “black people” or “white people” — or, for that matter, “brown people” or “yellow people.” Such distinctions presuppose racial lines which are anthropological fictions. For example, a recent survey by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport counted Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, but not Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams, as black … even though Williams has darker skin, broader features, fuller lips and curlier hair than does Jeter … and even though, judging by appearances, Williams, whom the Institute labeled “Hispanic” (read: brown), has more ancestors who would themselves be counted as black than does Jeter, whose father is black and mother white.
Anthropology notwithstanding, it might have made slightly more sense several generations ago for Americans to conflate “black people” with “descendants of slaves” — in which case affirmative action might be justified as reparations since the category would denote those human beings who hold a unique moral claim on the collective conscience of the United States. But that is no longer the case. Latter day immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, whose ancestors were neither enslaved nor subjected to Jim Crow apartheid, are nevertheless counted as black — as occasionally are, pace the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, dark-skinned people from the Caribbean and South America — but Egyptians from North Africa don’t count as black, except by implication during February, when we cite their distant ancestors’ achievements to fill out Black History Month.
Before reading on, therefore, repeat after me: There’s no such thing as black people. There’s no such thing as white people. There’s no such thing as brown people. There’s no such thing as yellow people. Human populations vary subtly and continuously from one geographic region to another, and they have done so for millennia, and the color-coded divisions imagined by 18th-century Europeans correspond with no consistent biological fault lines.
None of which means that categories like “black” and “white” don’t matter. Quite the contrary, the psychological condition of blackness — i.e. thinking of yourself as black — is observably linked in the United States with a range of unhappy circumstances from low birth weight to high incidence of obesity, from low standardized test scores to high crime rates. The fact that such altogether tangible tendencies should follow the imaginary fault line of race only underscores the potency of self-fulfilling expectations — among both blacks and whites (whatever we think the terms mean). The more often blacks do poorly, the more often they expect to do poorly — and the more often whites expect them to do poorly — and the more often infantilizing moments like the Supreme Court’s decision in the Michigan Law School case crop up.
ACCORDING TO SANDRA DAY O’Connor’s majority opinion, Michigan’s affirmative action program serves “a compelling state interest” by promoting academic diversity. But whose interest, specifically? Certainly not the Asian or Jewish or Irish or Italian kids who need to achieve higher grade point averages and test scores in direct proportion to how much the bar is lowered for black and Hispanic applicants. To guard against this objection, O’Connor insists: “The program must remain flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.” Treat everyone equally, in other words, and factor in race afterwards. Real world experience with affirmative action, however, has shown individual evaluations will not accomplish the goal of diversity. It takes more than a little subjective goosing at the end of the process to achieve the desired racial balances.
For example, researchers William Bowen and Derek Bok compiled a database of 45,000 students attending 28 highly selective universities committed to affirmative action between 1976 and 1989. Bowen and Bok found that the average SAT score for black admits was 1157; for whites the average was 1331. Not surprisingly, the mean GPA for black students was in the bottom quarter of their classes, and the dropout rate among blacks was 78 percent higher than among whites. Since the schools in the study were bending over backwards to recruit black students, it strains credibility to blame their poor performance on systematic racism. The far likelier explanation is that the black students were unprepared for the rigors of the work at elite universities and would have been better served at second-tier schools — as indicated by their test scores.
The Bowen and Bok study suggests that affirmative action programs are, at best, a mixed blessing for students admitted by lower standards — even aside from the subtle but undeniable stigma that attaches to their accomplishments thereafter. Given that affirmative action patently harms non-minority (or wrong minority) students, what is the “compelling state interest” in utilizing it to achieve racial diversity? Does diversity set as its goal the gathering together of different ideological perspectives? If so, it depends on the premise that blacks think like blacks, that whites think like whites, and so on — which would be distasteful even if race were a logically consistent classification. (If bringing together different ideological perspectives constitutes a compelling state interest, colleges nationwide should be busy recruiting conservative kids to counter the knee-jerk leftism that dominates American campus politics.)
Surely, it cannot be that the state’s compelling interest in diversity is aesthetic — i.e., the sight of marginally darker faces on college registration lines. If this is the case, however, the counter-aesthetic should also be kept in mind: the sight of a disproportionate number of darker faces lining up for remedial courses, tutoring hours and counseling services, the cost of which may in turn require cutbacks in other academic areas. For this is indeed the reality. Once you commit to taking in under-prepared students, it becomes unethical to abandon them. You owe them a support system.
In the final analysis, affirmative action in college admissions serves two main constituencies. The first constituency is black people — not all black people, and least of all black students, but that substantial segment of the black population who habitually gauge their black authenticity by their perception of being oppressed; such oppression is a condition contrary to fact, but infantilizing remedies like affirmative action seem to confirm its reality. The second constituency served by affirmative action programs is guilt-ridden white people because, to put the matter bluntly, infantilizing blacks makes them feel noble: Sure, our ancestors were mean, vicious oppressors of dark-skinned people. But look at us! We rescue them!
Whether these dual catharses add up to “a compelling state interest” is a question we must all wrestle with now.