March 06, 2024

Source: Bigstock

One of the stranger aspects of the long-running American affirmative action debate is that both supporters and critics of racial quotas seldom admit in public how scarce blacks would be in cognitively elite institutions without the now traditional massive thumb on the scale in their favor.

Liberal racial preference advocates tend to argue as if black representation in prestige positions in percentages close to their share of the population (12 percent or 14 percent, depending on whether or not you count individuals who identify as black and another race) merely requires tie-breakers favoring African-Americans among extremely equal applicants. They present an image of affirmative action as resembling the baseball rule that “a tie goes to the runner”: In the rare instances when the baserunner (black applicant in this analogy) and baseball (nonblack applicant) arrive exactly simultaneously, the umpire is obliged to declare the runner safe.

Who could object to something so trivial?

Racists, that’s who!

“Actually abolishing affirmative action would lead to a massive decline in black representation in cognitively elite positions.”

Similarly, conservative opponents of Diversity Equity Inclusion programs frequently imply that banning them would not cause a major falloff in the numbers of blacks qualifying for the best colleges and best jobs because blacks could just buckle down and work a little bit harder to make up the no doubt tiny difference.

Thus, the American public tends to narrowly oppose racial preferences in opinion polls. After all, we all know everybody is equal in intelligence, so why should one group be favored over another?

On the other hand, a sizable minority feels: Why is everybody getting so worked up over an insignificant edge in favor of blacks?

Yet, decision-makers, such as law school deans, tend to strongly favor affirmative action. The most straightforward explanation for their adamancy would be that they’ve seen the actual numbers.

But few law school administrators are willing to make clear what they’ve found. Instead, they tend to imply that the highly liberal institutions over which they prevail are hotbeds of white supremacy.

Therefore, at least in the English-speaking world, when somebody points out just how large are the racial gaps at the far right edge of the bell curve, the ill-informed public tends to be scandalized at the whistle-blower.

For example, when a junior Cambridge philosophy fellow named Nathan Cofnas recently pointed out that without affirmative action, African Americans would largely vanish from the most demanding high-profile jobs outside of sports and entertainment, few suggested that that’s why America needs to soldier on with racial preferences for blacks.

Instead, British center-right newspapers like the Telegraph, the Times of London, and the Daily Mail raised a brouhaha that may get Cofnas fired and perhaps arrested. The Telegraph reported that he alleged:

…in a truly meritocratic system: “Harvard faculty would be recruited from the best of the best students, which means the number of black professors would approach 0 per cent.” In such a system, black people would “disappear from almost all high-profile positions outside of sports and entertainment,” he wrote.

Of course, that’s more or less true. It depends upon how far out on the right extreme of the bell curve you define “high-profile,” although his example of Harvard professors would suggest Cofnas is talking about the elite of the elite. Charles Murray estimated in 2021 that blacks make up 1.1 percent of Americans ages 25–29 with IQs of 135 or above. But the average conservative newspaper reader appears to be unaware of these facts.

Consider law students, an influential group. A 2008 study by Jesse Rothstein of Princeton U. and Albert H. Yoon of the U. of Toronto found that with race-blind admissions, the percentage of blacks among students at “elite” law schools (e.g., Yale and the rest of the top 14) would fall from 8.7 percent to 0.9 percent. For elite law school professors, the falloff would presumably be even more drastic if black privilege were discontinued.

In the second tier, “public Ivy” law schools (such as UCLA), the black share would fall from 7.9 percent to 1.9 percent.

Keep in mind that if all law schools, rather than find clever work-arounds, were to obey both the letter and the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision last year banning academic affirmative action, the systemic impact would be somewhat more muted than that single figure suggests.

For example, some of the smart black applicants who get into No. 1-ranked Yale law school under the affirmative action system of the last 55 years would instead go to No. 4 U. of Pennsylvania, boosting the average performance of black students in classes taught by Amy Wax, the Penn law professor whom the Penn dean is trying to strip of tenure for daring to reveal the most thoroughly validated finding in American social science—“on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites”—to quote the opening sentence of The New York Times’ shocked, shocked denunciation of Wax for mentioning out loud why Penn uses affirmative action: to benefit Blacks over whites. (You can tell by the reverential capitalization who deserves to benefit.)

But still, actually abolishing affirmative action would lead to a massive decline in black representation in cognitively elite positions. Whether that would be a good thing, a bad thing, or a mixed outcome is a valid subject for opinionated debate. But the current assumption by all but the very best-informed citizens that it wouldn’t be a big thing is not supportable.

Interestingly, many other countries around the world have various kinds of affirmative action programs. Sometimes this is due to imitating America (such as Brazil), but often for reasons of their own.

For example, Nigeria is all-black, but admission to its “federal unity colleges” is much easier for applicants with low test scores from states in the anti-education Muslim north than from states in the hard-studying Christian Igbo south.

China gives affirmative action to ethnic minorities to help integrate them into the dominant Han culture. And among the Han majority, test score requirements for college admission are higher in the cleverer south-central coastal region than in the more stolid north.

Israel has class-based affirmative action, which is, as is sometimes admitted, intended in part to depress the Arab birth rate by sending their girls to college.

Other countries discriminate in favor of the majority, such as Malaysia, where the economically dominant Overseas Chinese minority are required to cut in the native bumiputra majority on their business deals.

In contrast, neighboring Singapore emphasizes meritocracy in schooling and economy, but since 2017 has a quota for who gets to be president that ensures that no major race goes more than five terms without one of their own being president. (Granted, in Singapore, the president is the rather ceremonial head of state. In contrast, for the past twenty years the head of government has been prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the formidable founder of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.)

Around the world, there is something a little feudal or imperial about affirmative action programs, with the higher power deciding to grant, for reasons of its own self-interest, complex special privileges to various ancestries, classes, and other hereditary groupings. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to the medieval mind to expect or even desire equality of all social groups. Instead, the polity was seen to be a complicated tapestry formed by a multi-generation history of bargaining over special privileges.

Not surprisingly, the country that since 1789 has been the most self-consciously modern in rejecting its own medieval contractual relationships, the republic of France, bans counting by race because that is seen as clouding the purity of the abstract relationship between the Citizen and the State. But even France winds up with some affirmative action programs in attempts to integrate its recalcitrant Muslims, who don’t much relate to Enlightenment concepts.

In contrast to the more intellectually sophisticated French, the residents of the other leading 18th-century republic, the United States, tend toward a more literal-minded assumption about equality. In America, the assumption that all men are created equal must be a self-evident truth is widely believed to have been not a metaphysical proposition but to have been empirically proven by The Science.

Or something.

Nobody can quite remember the name of the scientific genius who proved that Jefferson’s proposition applies to behavioral potential, but it’s felt anti-American to doubt it.

Therefore, as Ibram X. Kendi has pointed out, any deviations from strict equality of outcome are proof of evil white evilness.

So, while lots of countries have affirmative action, what makes the American system stand out is blame.


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