"Why America Still Needs Affirmative Action" (John Cassidy)
"Having lived in the United States for almost thirty years, I am always amazed that Americans persist in believing that this is a land of unparalleled opportunity and social mobility."
-- John Cassidy, in a newyorker.com blogpost,
"Why America Still Needs Affirmative Action"
"Why America Still Needs Affirmative Action"
It appears that affirmative action is safe for this week. But as John Cassidy makes clear at the outset of this post, he is only too well aware that by next week its likely to be dead or at least severely restricted, when the Supreme Court announces its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. None of which alters his opinion that "America still needs affirmative action" -- though as we'll see he isn't necessarily thinking of affirmative action as we have normally understood it.
"Set aside, for a moment," Cassidy says, "the explosive issue of black or brown versus white, which underpins much of the discussion about affirmative action.
There are compelling reasons to make it easier for young people of all races from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend college. The University of Texas program at the center of this case did just that. Far from being ruled illegal, it should be embraced and promoted as a practical, merit-based model for other states to copy. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.As suggested in the quote above, Cassidy has a lot of trouble with the idea of the U.S. as "a land of unparalleled opportunity and social mobility.
A bit suspect to begin with, the Horatio Alger story has been transformed, over the decades, into a chronic mental block. To well-educated youngsters from affluent backgrounds who know how to work the system, and even to well-educated immigrants such as myself, this is indeed a land of great opportunity. But for all too many working-class Americans -- and a lot of them aren't members of minority groups -- U.S. society is less of a launchpad than a glue trap. With their feet stuck to the ground, they have little prospect of ascending very far.And over the decades that he has been arguing the point with American friends and colleagues, growing numbers of studies have arrived to back him up (as in the conservative Brookings Institution report "Mobility Impairede").
"In a merit-based system," Cassidy writes, "family ties shouldn't matter very much."
But compared to people in places like Canada and Scandinavia, Americans tend to follow the earnings paths of their parents. On close inspection, the vast majority of highly successful Americans -- Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama among them -- turn out to be the progeny of highly educated professionals. For folks who start out in the cellar of U.S. society, even climbing up to the parlor level is quite a feat, and one that, these days, often demands a college education.At the heart of the University of Texas situation is a system that, since 1997, has guaranteed admission to state-funded colleges to those who finish in the top 10 percent of their high school class,
thus providing a route to college for talented students who live in all sorts of neighborhoods. Everybody knows that schools in poor areas tend to be worse than their counterparts in rich areas, and that, in general, their students get lower test scores. Here was a way to address that reality, while, at the same time, rewarding merit, ambition, and hard work. The resulting surge in enrollments has caused some problems for colleges such as the University of Texas at Austin, but nobody doubts it has increased the geographic and social diversity of the student body.In addition, for students who didn't finish in the top 10 percent, Texas public colleges were allowed "to consider race -- among many other factors, such as socioeconomic background, work experience, and extracurriculars." And the two aproaches together enabled the University of Texas to increase racial diversity. "[T]his is what the policy was intended to do, and that's why the Roberts Court might well strike it down."
Under the Supreme Court's 2003 Gruter v. Bollinger ruling, written by Sandra Day O'Connor, schools were already enjoined from considering race in a more than limited way. In the University of Texas case, white plaintiff Abigail Fisher is arguing that in being turned down by U.T. she was discriminated against on racial grounds in violation of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" provision.
"If the Court rules in Fisher's favor," Cassidy writes, "it could well upend the program guaranteeing places to the top ten per cent of high school students along with proscribing the use of race as a factor in admissions to public colleges across the country."
Should that happen, it may make sense for supporters of affirmative action to focus more heavily on broader concerns about social mobility. You don't have to live in the United States for long to realize that racial discrimination and racial segregation are still the daily reality facing all too many Americans; and, to combat them, I'm all for using traditional arguments wherever possible. But where the forces of conservatism have the upper hand, such as in the Supreme Court, it's also worth making the case for policies designed to improve the life prospects of all Americans, regardless of race, and to prevent U.S. society from turning into a rigid class system of the sort once associated with Latin America and “old” Europe.
Given the high degree of correlation between socioeconomic status and race, minorities of all types would be among the main beneficiaries of policies aimed at increasing social mobility, but that, to some extent, would be beside the point. The motivating force wouldn't be righting the wrongs of slavery, or constructing an impregnable Democratic majority in the electorate. It would be a desire to make real the vision of a society in which rewards are based on effort and talent, rather than family connections. And that, surely, should be something that even some conservatives could sign onto.