Notre Dame Professor James Sterba, in a rejoinder to comments by George Leef, recently repeated arguments in favor of affirmative action. Professor Sterba devotes most of his attention to race-based preferences, although he also states his support for class-based affirmative action. As I’ve argued elsewhere, proponents of socioeconomic preferences tend to present their case as if everyone could be upwardly mobile and our policies simply need to promote mobility from families at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in order to create a more diverse elite. In fact, since positions in a society are limited in number at any given time, everyone who moves into a preferred position must displace someone else. There is no way around the fact that preferring individuals who come from lower income or less educated families means discriminating against individuals who come from higher income or well educated families. Socioeconomic affirmative action systematically disfavors the success of some for no other reason than that their parents have been successful.
Professor Sterba, like other advocates of racial preferences, bases his advocacy on the social benefits that will supposedly flow from these preferences. Chief among these is the putative role of affirmative action in propelling blacks and other minorities into highly desired elite occupations. Once again, since there exist only a limited number of top occupational positions, favoring members of some categories occupationally automatically means disfavoring others. In other words, we should have racial preferences in educational admissions because these will promote racial preferences in socioeconomic rewards throughout life. The argument in favor of such a continuing practice of discrimination is that it is a necessary evil in order to pursue the “compelling national interest,” in the Supreme Court’s term, of a more diverse society. This, however, raises the question of the extent to which social policy can re-shape our society, as well as the question of whether a representative democracy should attempt to redesign its citizenry.
Group level differences in achievement and attainment constitute the fundamental characteristic of American society that bureaucratic efforts at diversification intend to eliminate. Race-based affirmative action would not exist if there were no variations in achievement across racial and ethnic groups. The Supreme Court recognized this in the 2004 decision, Grutter v Bollinger, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor portrayed race-based admissions as contrary to the principle of treating all individuals equally. Therefore, they could be justified only temporarily in order to achieve the diversity that supposedly would eliminate the variations in achievement. As I have pointed out, though, there is no evidence that the group-level achievement gaps have diminished during the time that the United States has pursued affirmative action policies in educational admissions. In fact, these gaps have increased. While the performance gap between blacks and whites has remained relatively constant over the past quarter century, those between Asians and Hispanics, the two fastest growing groups in American society, have increased. This is largely due to the fact that average Asian achievement levels have steadily gone up. Inconveniently for supporters of race-based affirmative action, this means that preferences for under-represented minorities disadvantage Asians, vastly over-represented in elite educational institutions, more than people in any other category. The continuing achievement gap, then, calls into question the idea that American society can be redesigned by the tinkering of policy makers. At best, it seems, we end up moving individuals from underrepresented groups into highly desired positions at the expense of individuals from other groups.
Like other supporters of affirmative action, Professor Sterba also maintains that racially preferential policies have benefits for those ineligible for preferences. Notably, he remarks that 8 out of 10 white law students at Harvard and the University of Michigan reported that discussions with students of other races affected their views of the criminal justice system. The role of minority students, then, is to teach whites the black or Hispanic truth. Professor Sterba expects minority students to act as group representatives, whose function will be to consistently remind other students of the goals and interests of the group. Like Irving Howe, in the Dissent magazine exchange with Ralph Ellison in the early sixties, Sterba lays on black Americans the obligation to perform as protestors.
Finally, Professor Sterba cites several studies that have found continuing discrimination in various sectors of American society and, following his expectation that affirmative action will enable minorities to educate whites, maintains that propelling more minority members into elite colleges and universities will create the “political will” to eradicate discrimination. He does not say what he means by this term, but I interpret “political will” to mean the exercise of governmental power. He seems to be suggesting that affirmative action is desirable because it will lead to a massive inquisition and state intervention to eliminate all discriminatory behavior. His advocacy of affirmative action, then, appears to be part of a larger authoritarian project for restructuring American society.