Fix Affirmative Action Before Its Enemies Kill It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It might seem curious that the lawsuit against Harvard University, alleging admissions discrimination against Asian applicants, is grabbing national headlines. In an age when battles over immigrant family separation, abortion rights, police reform and other important issues have captivated the nation, the issue of who gets into Harvard can seem trivial. Furthermore, even if elite private universities have an admissions process that is less than perfectly meritocratic, the fact that these schools admit so few students in the first place, and funnel so many of them into jobs of questionable social value, means that the nationwide economic consequences of the lawsuit’s outcome may be slim to none.

But the true stakes are actually rather high, because the case will probably determine the future of affirmative-action policies throughout the U.S. Edward Blum, the leader of the group suing on behalf of Asian applicants, is a longtime opponent of all racial-admissions preferences. If the court orders Harvard to evaluate Asians and whites purely on merit — based on things like test scores, grade-point averages and extracurricular activities, but not on subjective assessments of applicants’ personalities — it will establish a legal precedent that will then be invoked to attack preferences in favor of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

If that attack is successful, it would be a shame. There is no moral equivalence between discriminating against hard-working, capable Asian applicants on behalf of richer but less competent white applicants on the one hand, and preserving a place for black Americans and other disadvantaged groups on the other hand. Black Americans and Native Americans in particular have suffered centuries of oppression and systematic disadvantage in the U.S., and President Lyndon Johnson’s words in 1965 still ring true:

You do not 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.

It is thus morally consistent to preserve admissions policies aimed at making up for the country’s historical sins against disadvantaged groups, while still allocating many or most admissions based on meritocracy.

However, the issue is more complicated than this. Many advocates of race-based college admissions don’t justify the practice purely on historical grounds, but as a way of creating diversity on campus. Under this standard, groups that tend to have lower academic achievement — including some Asian-American groups such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong — would all be given special preference in admissions, in order to give universities student bodies that ethnically resemble the nation as a whole.

That’s not a crazy idea. As the U.S. becomes more diverse, it’s critical to have institutions that integrate the populace into a unified whole. College can serve as one such integrating institution, at least among the elite; for example, research has found that having a dormitory roommate of a different race decreases racial prejudice.

But diversity-based affirmative action also has several inherent flaws, which will become more acute in the years to come. First of all, ethnic identity is self-reported. This means that many of the people admitted under ethnic preferences will actually just be white people who choose to check an ethnic box for cynical reasons. In their book “The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in Twenty-First Century America,” sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean report interviewing a young woman of mixed white and Hispanic origin who identified as white in daily life, but who marked “Hispanic” on college applications in order to boost her chances of getting into good schools. A number of young Americans have become annoyed at this phenomenon. As interracial marriage proceeds at a very high rate, cases like this will undoubtedly become more common.

More fundamentally, broad racial and ethnic categories often fail to capture the socioeconomic differences that exist in the U.S.. The disparity between Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong Americans on one hand, and Chinese and Indian Americans on the other, is stark. Among Hispanics, admissions spots may go to wealthy white Cuban Americans while leaving poorer Salvadoran or Guatemalan Americans behind.

Between greater awareness of intra-racial distinctions and steadily rising intermarriage, the prospect of a durable diversity-based affirmative action system looks increasingly fraught. Taken to a ludicrous extreme, it would end with lawsuit after lawsuit — sociologists arguing in court about whether Guatemalan-Chinese Americans deserve more Harvard spots than Cambodian-Italian Americans. It won’t get that far, of course, but the image should serve to illustrate the difficulty of parceling out college spots based on an ever more complex tapestry of American ethnicity.

A simpler alternative is called for. This could consist of two types of affirmative action, existing side by side. The first would be an explicit racial preference for black and Native Americans, reflecting the importance of atoning for the U.S.’s foundational sins. The second would be a class-based system aimed at helping any American who grew up in poverty get a boost into the ranks of the elite.

Class-based preferences would automatically select for groups suffering from elevated poverty levels, like Guatemalan and Cambodian Americans, while avoiding giving unnecessary help to more privileged subgroups. It would also help poor white Americans. No doubt some would see this as unfair, given the U.S.’s history of discrimination that favored whites, but it would also help relieve some of the white opposition to affirmative action.

This two-track affirmative-action system wouldn’t be perfectly fair — but nothing ever will. A kaleidoscopically diverse society with deep economic inequality and a complicated, brutal history will naturally involve making some approximations and some compromises. But the alternative — ceding the future to Edward Blum and others who want to destroy affirmative action completely — would be much worse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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