Updated March 29 at 6:27pm

Affirmative action, other American oddities confuse me

Guest Column:
Clive Crook
Here’s an odd thing I’ve found as a foreigner living in Washington, D.C.: The longer I’m here the more alien I feel.

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Affirmative action, other American oddities confuse me


Here’s an odd thing I’ve found as a foreigner living in Washington, D.C.: The longer I’m here the more alien I feel.

With the passage of time, the four-way road stop (for instance) seems more perplexing, not less. Recent Supreme Court decisions focused my attention on another exceptionally American weirdness: race-based affirmative action.

You may have to be American to regard this idea as anything other than nuts. A kind of nationally willed suspension of disbelief is required to think about it without laughing. How did a nation dedicated to equality before the law ever decide that the remedy for racism and its legacy is institutionalized, race-based preference? It would be difficult to come up with a better way to entrench resentment of minorities among poor whites or to cast suspicion on the achievements of successful black and Hispanics.

Judging from its jurisprudence on the matter, the Supreme Court finds the subject as confusing as I do. Explicit quotas are illegal, but racial discrimination is permissible as part of a holistic approach. Could you run that by me again?

I understand and admire the desire to atone for consequences of slavery. In the 1960s, when racial integration and equal opportunity were starting from zero, and emergency action to achieve speedy redress was necessary, the deliberate injustice of race-based preferences made some sense. But with Barack Obama in the White House?

Last year, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor published “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.” It’s a fine book, and the evidence gathered under the first part of the subtitle is convincing. As they wrote in a piece for the Atlantic:

“The single biggest problem in this system – a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research – is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries.

I was even more intrigued by the second part – about the reluctance of the universities and respectable opinion in general to recognize the defects of the policy. It’s a subject that cannot be discussed, least of all in the precincts of American institutions dedicated to fearless, free inquiry. The authors explain in the Atlantic piece:

“Simply acknowledging the fact that large preferences exist can trigger accusations that one is insulting or stigmatizing minority groups; suggesting that these preferences have counterproductive effects can lead to the immediate inference that one wants to eliminate or cut back efforts to help minority students.”

What form should that help take, then, if not race-based admissions preferences? First of all, of course, stamp on discrimination against minorities where it exists. Second, spare no effort to raise the pre-college educational attainment of all economically disadvantaged students, regardless of color.

As for other American oddities: Don’t even get me started on plea bargains. •

Clive Crook is a columnist and editorial writer for Bloomberg View.


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