When we examine controversial topics and the respective arguments made for each side, sometimes we see one group reaching for support that stretches a point so far that it looks more like desperation than reasoning. The quality of evidence is so flimsy and thin that we don’t wonder whether it’s right or wrong. We ask, “Is this the best you can do?”
A good example is a brief submitted by the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reformed Judaism, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court case on affirmative action that was argued on Wednesday. The brief defends the university’s policy of considering race as part of its admission process.
This month’s issue of Commentary has a long article by Jeremy Rozansky examining the changing Jewish position on affirmative action, and it cites the brief as a prime example.
Reading through the brief, one is struck by the tiresome familiarity of statements in favor of diversity, assertions that are offered as pat truths but, when examined closely, are at the very least debatable. Two examples:
We have held that affirmative action aimed at correcting historic injustice in our society is a significant and successful vehicle for achieving such a goal.
(Among the many questions one could raise about that triumphant assertion is: “If it is so significant and successful, then why is it that, after decades of the practice, you insist that we are still in a situation in which it is so crucially necessary?”)
The race discrimination and race consciousness experienced by a minority student in our society can be a singularly formative experience for that applicant that will directly impact what insights he or she will bring to the classroom and the campus.
(Among the many questions one could raise about that statement, which gets into the dicey equation of racial identity and mental condition, is: “Such experiences can lead to many things besides ‘insights,’ including bias, resentment, suspicion, and self-destructiveness. Do these outcomes, too, enhance the classroom and the campus?” This is not an argument for denying admission to discriminated persons, of course, but to show how the logic of background experiences can go either way.)
We also have several ridiculously alarmist statements, such as, if Fisher were to prevail,
It would deprive university administrators of their ability to provide their students with an enriching and diverse educational experience, and instead force them to ignore essential qualities, challenges, and life experiences faced by their applicants.
(So many things to say about that overdone concern. One, let’s remember that the loss of affirmative action would affect only the most selective institutions, a mere fraction of the full higher-education landscape; and two, it is absurd to say that without race-based selection criteria, it is impossible to provide “an enriching and diverse educational experience.” There are other ways and means.)
Finally, the brief presents various studies of diversity in higher education as demonstrating conclusively that student learning improves in a racially diverse classroom. Apart from the many critiques that question the scientific methods of diversity studies, what stands out is the downright odd conception of social interaction assumed by such studies. The brief cites one researcher at length, Pedro A. Noguera, who notes the number of stereotypes whites assume about black students, including their doubts about black students’ “educational potential.” Here is the conclusion the brief draws:
Each minority student brings these experiences into the classrooms, cafeterias, and dormitories, adding vital and unique points of view that are translated to his or her peers. … The other students learn and benefit from being exposed to and understanding these experiences, preparing them to be compassionate, understanding, tolerant, and successful professionals. The minority student excelling in geometry, or the sciences, for example, challenges in a direct and forceful manner the stereotypes referred to by Professor Noguera.
Is that an accurate or even plausible representation of how college students interact?
Note the bizarre “translation” process in the first sentence, as if the black or brown student’s experiences shift by osmosis to white and Asian students. The result has all the sentimentality of a PC children’s cartoon: compassion, understanding, tolerance. Nothing here on envy, competition, gossip, sexual gamesmanship, drinking, and all the other pressures and vices of American teens. For all their awareness of discrimination, injustice, and hurt, the authors of the brief envision a student utopia that never has existed and never will exist.
The final line is the kicker, for two reasons. First, imagine the thought process here presented. A white or Asian student sees a black or brown student in the lab and thinks, “Hey, dark-skinned people can do science, too!” This is a caricature of every person involved. It elevates a 19-year-old’s stereotypes far above their standing, emphasizing race-thinking far more than most 19-year-olds do.
For those scattered white and Asian students who do think in stereotypes all the time, what might prevent them from observing, “Yeah, she can do calculus, but look at math scores for African-American students in general”? In other words, stereotypes may be a whole lot stronger than the social engineers assume—and more social engineering to cope with them verges on thought control.
There is an empirical problem, too, and it was uncovered by social scientists at Duke University recently. When researchers looked at what happened to incoming students who intended to pursue STEM majors, they found that affirmative-action recipients abandoned those majors at a significantly higher rate than nonaffirmative-action students. They attributed the diverging rates to differences in academic background and preparation.
One implication of their work is that if African-American students don’t receive affirmative-action admissions and end up going to schools with students with whom they might have more similar academic backgrounds, then they might stay in STEM majors at higher rates. In other words, less affirmative action would counter the can’t-do-science stereotype better than more affirmative action.
This brief shows just how desperate affirmative-action proponents have become in supporting a policy whose empirical grounds are crumbling. Fantasies of social togetherness, visions of stereotype elimination, and sentimental conceptions of human nature don’t amount to a legal case. The answer to briefs such as this one is, “Is this the best you can do?”
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.