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Wednesday, June 25, 2003
I guess my favorite thing about SCOTUS' affirmative action decision is Thomas' dissent, which gets around eventually to arguing that the majority is wrong to uphold diversity because it made him, personally, feel bad when he was in college.

At the heart of Justice Thomas's dissenting opinion was a highly personal critique of affirmative action, which he called the "cruel farce of racial discrimination."

"The law school tantalizes unprepared students with the promise of a University of Michigan degree and all of the opportunities that it offers," he said, adding, "These overmatched students take the bait, only to find that they cannot succeed in the cauldron of competition."

Justice Thomas, himself a beneficiary of affirmative action at Yale Law School, compiled a respectable record at what is arguably the country's most elite law school. So his opinion reflected not objective failure so much as a lifelong struggle with the ambiguous position in which beneficiaries of affirmative action — "test subjects," as he put it — often found themselves as elite institutions felt their way, sometimes clumsily, toward a more inclusive identity in the cauldron of the early 1970's.

Asking, "Who can differentiate between those who belong and those who do not?" he continued: "The majority of blacks are admitted to the law school because of discrimination, and because of this policy all are tarred as undeserving. This problem of stigma does not depend on determinacy as to whether those stigmatized are actually the `beneficiaries' of racial discrimination. When blacks take positions in the highest places of government, industry or academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color played a part in their advancement."

So, basically, he felt bad because he thought that affirmative action implied that blacks weren't, actually, just as worthy of jobs as whites. Then again, it doesn't necessarily have to imply that, as I'll explain in a second, and if there are options as to the interpretation, one has to ask: from where does this implication of lessened worth come from? Well, gee, looks like conservatives to me. So the same group of people who keep insisting that the reason racism still exists is because we keep talking about race, and that if we stopped talking about it it would go away, also keep talking about how affirmative action lessens the worth of blacks. Now, following their logic, the way to make that stigma go away would seem to be to stop talking about it; and if that argument's not valid, well, maybe the argument about racism magically going away isn't so valid either.

That said, let's consider this question of perceived worth. Now, the folks on the right seem to keep insisting that this case exists separate from any historical or societal context, and that giving extra points to black people is no different from giving extra points to white people, so let me play on their terms a bit and do a thought experiment about groups X and Y, and see how Thomas' supposition plays out.

It is demonstrated that, on average, group Y receives a worse education than group X--their schools have less money, their teachers are less qualified, etc. Although there is no difference in average intelligence between group X and Y, secondary educational achievement for group X is markedly above group Y (group Y even gets placed in special ed classes at a higher rate), and so members of group X tend to get into certain colleges (let's call them the Z group) at a higher rate than group Y; there is a clear separation going on, although of course the relative worth of colleges is up for debate, and they may very well be equal.

Still, some people see this as a problem. The clear solution is to improve (i.e. equalize and normalize) the secondary educational system, but since this is easier said than done, it is suggested that a different way be found in the meantime, and members of group Z (those "special" colleges) voluntarily decide to start looking beyond secondary achievement measures and admitting that members of group Y might be equally as smart as members of group X, but might have simply had the bad luck to be placed in a bad school, as seems to disproportionately happen to members of group Y.

But no, says Judge Q: this is unfair, and will cause members of group Y to continually doubt their achievement, even if they are, in fact, just as qualified as members of group X. So the solution is struck down.

What happens? Well, members of group X continue to go to group Z in disproportionate numbers, and find members of group Y absent from same, and there is a clear separation between the two groups.

In other words, you've set up what Thomas disavows: a separate-but-equal system.

Now, of course, there are a few objections you can make to this. One is that while you can replace "group X" with "whites" and "group Y" with "minorities," you can also replace them with "affluent people" and "poor people." And I'm all for preferential admission for low-income students, but the problem there is that once you let admissions officers look at a student's income, that also effects the college's decision to admit based on the amount of financial aid they would have to give; income-biased admissions could easily result in a drop in the number of low-income students. However, using an organic approach (as the court favors) where admissions officers can de facto tell what kind of background a kid came from based on their name or school allows these kind of preferences to helpfully sneak in, and I think that's all right.

Another objection would be based in our historical situation, i.e. that, well, there are a lot of affluent blacks now, and they seem to be doing just fine, so there will be lots of minorities at elite colleges even if we drop affirmative action. The problem with this is twofold. First is the way it mirrors the President's argument that since our water is the cleanest it's been since 1960, it proves that we don't need environmental protection. Well, of course that's ridiculous, since the reason it's so clean is because of the environmental protection we've had, and the same applies here: if we force our colleges to become "race-blind" now, this won't assure a continued rise in black enrollment at elite institutions, but will instead cause that statistic to essentially freeze. If you think we've got just enough racial equality right now, then I guess that's not a problem, but personally, I disagree. And while we're talking about historical context, let me mention that the widespread belief that we don't have to worry about race anymore because it'll just take care of itself, man, is way more PC than anything I've said in the last 5 years.

Of course, all of this overlooks a few important facts, such as the one that, Thomas' feelings aside, affirmative action beneficiaries rarely (i.e. 1%) feel that it has had a negative effect on them, that "few studies show that student learning outcomes, such as success in postgraduate employment, correlate positively with initial quantitative test scores or grade point averages," and that affirmative action "babies" go on to greater success than those who have not benefited from the program (no link, sorry, but it's around somewhere) because, unsurprisingly, they appreciate the opportunity more. Not to mention that if affirmative action students are failing out of college because of their poor training, the problem seems to be less with the admissions process and more with the college's first-year curriculum and/or the climate they cultivate on campus (that whole "diversity" thing Thomas disdains), but I am a bleeding-heart, after all.

Were I an armchair psychiatrist, I might say something about how Thomas' feelings of worthlessness might stem from his allegiance with a party his race has traditionally not been allied with, but that would be unfair and, of course, highly unacademic.