By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
Because of the recent Supreme Court decision against the use of affirmative action in admissions policies in colleges, I am posting my critique of this affirmative action, taken from Fire in the Streets.
Affirmative Action on Trial
For some, affirmative action is a closed case: it is good and it helps black people. Nevertheless, the case is not closed, and the American creed should cause us to question it.
After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson and others argued for what they called “affirmative action.” This meant that African Americans would be given every opportunity to fairly compete with those of other races in American society. To that end, several educational and social programs were launched in what was called the Great Society.
At that time, affirmative action did not entail quotas in employment or education for black people, which meant discrimination against equally or greater-skilled members of other races. This original understanding can be called “equal opportunity.” President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order No. 10,925 in 1961 said “that federal contractors” should “take affirmative action to ensure that the applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” But the meaning of “affirmative action” would radically change—even into its opposite.
Most Democrats, union leaders, and civil rights leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s opposed this new kind of affirmative action because it would disadvantage competent white people (and others) and generate resentment between the races. For example, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who ran for president in 1968, opposed it. While guiding the 1964 Civil Rights Bill through the U.S. Senate, he assured his colleagues that it “does not require an employer to achieve any kind of racial balance in his work force by giving preferential treatment to any individual or group.”
The constitutional argument is that affirmative action violates the equal protection clause of the Fifteenth Amendment, which in part reads: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
However, President Richard Nixon (1913–94) unilaterally instituted affirmative action in 1969, and it has been in place ever since throughout business and education. The equal-opportunity legislation articulated by Kennedy and Humphrey worked against racial discrimination. However, the argument against affirmative action as it is now conceived is two-fold—the in-principle argument and the in-practice argument.
The in-principle argument was just explained, but let me expand the discussion. Individuals, of whatever race, should be hired for jobs or admitted to educational institutions on the basis of merit, not because of group membership. No one should be discriminated against because of race; nor should anyone be favored on the basis of race. This is the classic idea of creating a level playing field—or a fairly level playing field, since perfection is not possible among fallen mortals. And when civil governments try to implement perfection through legislation, this always backfires through deleterious unintended consequences.
This stance squarely fits the Fifteenth Amendment. This concept was adopted in 1996 in the state of California in Proposition 209, which added the following language to the state’s constitution: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” It is still in effect.
Competence can be penalized through affirmative action. This is painfully evident in admission policies at high schools, colleges, and universities. For decades, many schools have stratified standards for admissions by race. Asians must pass the highest standards for admission. The reasoning is that their excellent academic ratings are due to unearned and unfair “privilege,” even though high-achieving Asian Americans have faced race-related discrimination and resentment, especially in college and even high school admissions.
Kenny Xu has written a ringing defense of a colorblind, level-playing-field approach in An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy. Asian Americans are not receiving fair treatment. For example, Thomas Jefferson High School for Math and Science in Arlington, Virginia, was for many years one of the best schools in the region. Starting in the 2000s, increasing numbers of Asian Americans were admitted.
This merit-based enrollment meant that by 2020, 72 percent of its students were Asian-American. This is simply due to the cultural values of hard work and studiousness in Asian American families. However, after the death of George Floyd and “the racial reckoning” of 2020, the school was deemed racist because Asian Americans do not make up 72 percent of the general population and because in 2020, only six black students were admitted. The school used standardized test scores and no quotas to determine who got in. The school board pressured the school to change, and antiracist impresario Ibram X. Kendi was brought in for a fee of $20,000 to awaken them all to the racism inherent in non-proportional representation.
This merit-based, outstanding school then switched to a system where one hundred of its 480 spots became purely merit-based, but “the rest would go to any students about a 3.5 GPA, with the required courses, by the luck of the draw.” This was done to “increase diversity,” colorblind merit be damned. It is no surprise that Xu wrote his book to protest this kind of thoughtless prejudice, which is widespread in the United States. Identity politics in this nation ironically undermines the unique, individual identities based on people’s abilities and potential, and subsumes them under group association.
The practical argument against affirmative action is that while it has helped some POC over the years, its demerits outweigh its merits. Besides the moral point about excluding competent non-POC from jobs and schools, there is a relational problem. POC who are hired or admitted due to being POC may become objects of suspicion. Are they there because of merit or to fill a quota? I often tell my gifted non-POC graduate students that the odds are against them to find any full-time academic teaching position, especially if they are men. Shelby Steele, who is a black academic, argues that affirmative action encourages self-doubt among black people who are hired or admitted more because of race than because of competence. Thus, affirmative action overall does not add to social harmony, does not empower black people, and does not lead to mutual respect between races.
Another practical problem is the boomerang effect. Affirmative action often springs back to injure the ones it was supposed to help. A prime example of this failure is higher education. For more than three decades, colleges and universities have been admitting students on the basis of racial preferences, which favor black people. That means black students can be admitted to college, universities, and law schools—including some of the most prestigious ones—despite having lower academic rankings than their peers. The motivation for this is good: its proponents believe that, given the history of black people in the United States, they need a leg up or special help in education. Whatever one thinks of this principle, the result has not helped black people overall in higher education. Many writers, such as Dinesh D’Souza, Thomas Sowell, and Heather Mac Donald, have documented the sad trend that these specially admitted black students often later switch to academically easier majors and suffer from disproportionally higher dropout rates overall.
Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, makes a sustained case that these racially skewed admission policies have hurt the minorities they were supposed to help while also disadvantaging white people and Asians. Steele is spot on: “racial preferences allow society to leapfrog over the difficult problem of developing blacks to parity with whites and into a cosmetic divert that covers the blemish of disparity.”
The American system is sound, if imperfect. Whatever systemic problems now exist are best reformed according to American ideals, not by CRT ideology. The concept of systemic racism, as formulated by CRT, is largely divorced from facts, ignores the dimension of personal values and responsibility, and places the blame unfairly on one racial group, which is, in turn, expected to take responsibility for systemic racism. American citizens of all colors are better served by adhering to the values and perspective of our founding documents and legal reforms, which inspired so many beneficial racial reforms in our nation’s history.
[Groothuis, Douglas R. Fire in the Streets: How You Can Confidently Respond to Incendiary Cultural Topics (pp. 79-84). Salem Books. Documentation provided in the original.]