Judging from the past month of political controversy, you could be forgiven for thinking that the United States had mysteriously warped back to the early 1990s. After all, the similarities are striking: not only are Republicans again trying to sink a young Democratic president’s ambitious attempt at health care reform, but once more, economic difficulties have made race-based affirmative action policies a fertile field for controversy. As other commentators have pointed out, the main effect of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been exactly that: a renewed effort on part of conservatives to destroy affirmative-action’s (already shaky) standing in the court of public opinion. With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising to see the New York Times’ resident conservative come out against continuing affirmative-action:
By 2023, if current demographic trends continue, nonwhites — black, Hispanic and Asian — will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042, they’ll constitute a national majority. As Hua Hsu noted earlier this year in The Atlantic, “every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.”
As this generation rises, race-based discrimination needs to go. The explicit scale-tipping in college admissions should give way to class-based affirmative action; the de facto racial preferences required of employers by anti-discrimination law should disappear.
A system designed to ensure the advancement of minorities will tend toward corruption if it persists for generations, even after the minorities have become a majority. If affirmative action exists in the America of 2028, it will be as a spoils system for the already-successful, a patronage machine for politicians — and a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population.
I’ll give credit to Douthat for at least implicitly acknowledging that affirmative-action is still basically necessary in contemporary America. That said, he comes to that conclusion by way of a very unusual – and mistaken – premise. Namely, that we can assess the “quantity” of racial justice in a society by simply tallying up the number of underprivileged minorities in said society. By Douthat’s lights, we still need affirmative-action because minorities are still that, minorities. In the future however, that won’t be the case. Even if the definition of “white” expands to include people we currently consider “Hispanic” or “Asian,” it’s still likely that nonwhites will constitute a plurality – if not a majority – of the United States. Under those conditions, Douthat argues, it doesn’t make any sense for affirmative-action to exist.
Douthat’s argument sounds intuitive, but it doesn’t actually make any sense. For starters, he misplaces the source of racial injustice; it’s not that affirmative action is necessary because there aren’t very many nonwhites or even because of the still-present personal bias towards nonwhites. Rather, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if affirmative action is necessary, it’s because of widespread systemic bias stemming from generations of overt and covert institutional discrimination. Years of study and empirical observation have revealed, consistently, that the mere fact of being nonwhite (and particularly of being African-American or Latino) puts you at a distinct disadvantage, either acutely, as is the case when looking for employment, or generally, as in discussions of wealth, health outcomes, educational opportunity and social networks.
The critical part is that none of these things are population dependent. Indeed, it is entirely possible for systemic bias against nonwhites to exist in a majority-minority society. To use an obvious example, South Africa is still marred by widespread discrimination and bias, despite the fact that whites are a distinct minority within the country. We can see this dynamic play out in the United States, at least regard to individual states. After California – a majority-minority state – voted to ban race, ethnicity or gender-based affirmative action in 1996, there was an immediate and sharp decline in the number of black and Hispanic students accepted into the UC system. In fact, among the more selective schools like UC Berkley, the acceptance rate for African-American students fell from 49 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 1998. Not surprisingly, the picture is the same in majority-white states which have outlawed – or greatly restricted – affirmative action. In 2004, after the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision forcing the University of Michigan to reevaluate its affirmative action program, admission officers at the University reported to that:
The number of African American freshman applications to the university declined 28 percent, from 1,868 to 1,337. The number of black freshmen this year was the smallest since 1989, though the overall freshman class is the largest in Michigan’s 187-year history.
The easy – and predictable – answer to this is that African-American and Hispanic students are simply not good enough to be admitted into elite universities. Their scores are not high enough, their grades not good enough etc. But, again, that ignores the vast number of systemic factors that have an impact on whether any given person attends college – income, parental educational attainment, educational opportunity, etc. – as well as the fact that admissions themselves are only partially based off of “objective” criteria like grades and test scores. My main point though is that the mere presence of a substantial minority presence doesn’t guarantee any mitigation in systemic biases. Even if the United States becomes majority-minority, there is still the very real possibility that, in the absence of any concerted efforts otherwise, the systemic biases against nonwhites will become even more entrenched.
Contra Douthat, affirmative action (and especially race-based affirmative action) will be necessary for as long as our political institutions refuse to address systemic discrimination in any meaningful way. Indeed, if conservatives were genuinely interested in eliminating race-based preferences in academia or hiring, the first step they could take towards that goal would simply be to begin investing resources in improving education, health care and job opportunities for under-privileged and historically disadvantaged communities. Account for those problems and maybe – maybe – we’ll see an America where preferences and set-asides aren’t necessary.