In his commencement address to Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson introduced what would become one of the most widely quoted justifications for the use of racial preferences in education and employment. Johnson declared that achieving the freedom of all individuals to “share, fully and equally, in American society” was not enough. “You do not,” the President said, “take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” American society, in this view, is a competition, a race for high prestige occupations, for wealth, and for success in all of its many forms. But races, whether “fair” or not, generally end up with contenders in first place, second and third place, and also rans, with at least one runner finishing dead last. We could, in the name of fairness, give our recently chained runner a good head start or even walk this competitor to the finish line before the starting shot and announce a winner. This would be an unusual and interesting athletic event.
Opponents of affirmative action frequently object to it not because they are against fairness but because they object to rigging the game. The objections are stronger than they would be in a footrace because the winners get those real prizes of widely desired jobs and good incomes. The response of the policy-making advocates of preferences has been to pretend, or to convince themselves, that the race of American life is one in which everyone’s a winner. Over the past half-century many Americans have decided that education is the track on which everyone can compete and end up at front.
In truth, though, like every race and every other competitive activity, the dash for educational benefits is a zero-sum game, just as the succeeding scramble for positions or opportunities in life will be a zero-sum game at any point in time. At my own university, the numbers of freshman admissions have been growing each year, so that we’ve been struggling to keep up with providing enough classes, but the numbers have still been limited in any given year. Everyone who gets in by definition deprives someone else of a spot.
Each advantage to one competitor of necessity becomes a disadvantage for another, a basis of discrimination. Footraces discriminate in favor of individuals with better training, greater inherent leg strength, and longer strides, and against those without those qualities. The more we try to compensate by giving head starts to those who (perhaps for reasons beyond their control) are weaker athletes, the more we discriminate against the better athletes and lessen their chances of winning the ribbons that will not go to everyone.
When we grant special consideration to any characteristic of competitors, we engage in intentional discrimination, not only for those with that characteristic but, by logical necessity, against those without it. Giving points for being non-white, poor, the first college applicant in a family, or having an unconventional sexual orientation must also mean taking points away for being white, non-poor, the scion of well-educated parents, or being heterosexual. Apart from the fact that these types of categorical discrimination are invitations for strategic self-misrepresentation (I think many of my fellow white Louisianians could reposition themselves as non-white with enough genealogical research), they also lead to some bizarre scenarios: Your parents worked hard to be successful or managed to make it through professional schooling, so we are going to hold that against you. We are going to mark you down because you prefer members of the opposite sex. Ultimately, though, we have to recognize that however we set the game up, it is not possible to simply pass around winning positions to a wider and more diverse set of players.