Rage or Justice
The complicated emotions behind the Supreme Court’s upcoming argument on affirmative action.
Affirmative action would be acceptable to me if it looked at economic circumstances. But looking only at race is a problem. I say this even as a good liberal, knowing I have to apologize a hundred times for it. ... If we could get out of affirmative action based on race, and look at class/economics instead, it'd get us out of all this.
It’s a tempting idea; there’s a debate over whether it holds up. A brief in the Supreme Court case by more than 400 social scientists says that if schools like UT can only admit students based on where they went to high school and their performance there—the Texas Top Ten Percent plan—the number of blacks and Hispanics admitted will fall. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund points out that happened at state universities in Michigan and California after race-conscious admissions were banned.
Mike Wiser, who is 31 and finishing his Ph.D. in biology in Michigan, wrote in to say that while diversity should be measured in terms of a variety of factors, often that’s just not the focus. “We may say that it's important to also consider geographic, economic, political, religious, or orientation forms of diversity, but if we're not reporting on those, it's simply not going to happen—race, sex, and disability are all that are going to count.”
I’ll end with an email from the father of a white applicant to UT who didn’t get in (like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff before the Supreme Court). He opposes race-based affirmative action, but the change he calls for is broader than ending it. “The true solution is to offer citizens more choices of what are called "tier 1" schools,” he writes. “Currently the state has only two public universities that meet this criteria, UT-Austin and Texas A&M. The problem? That costs money, something the state really doesn't have.” It’s a crucial insight: The less access people have to an important benefit—and college education ranks among the highest—the more they fight for the scraps. If we had more good universities, we’d have more opportunities to go around. That probably won’t come up at the Supreme Court this week. But it’s more than worth thinking about.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.