A front page story in yesterday’s New York Times depicted the brewing controversy over affirmative action policies at the University of Cape Town—a tale which has important lessons for the debates over affirmative action in U.S. higher education.
The article cites opposition to affirmative action not only from white conservatives, but also from a middle-class black student who says he finds racial admission preferences “offensive,” and from a left-wing “mixed-race” professor, who spent a decade in jail with Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid and says affirmative action now betrays the goal of a non-racial society.
The professor, Neville Alexander, a Marxist sociologist, said the use of racial benchmarks, employing the old apartheid categories of black, mixed-race, and Indian, is wrong, even if used for better purposes. “The government under apartheid did the same and we told them to go to hell,” he declared in a campus debate. Some are now pushing for the use of “nonracial measures of disadvantage—for example, whether applicants’ parents went to a university, or the quality of the high schools the students themselves attended,” writes Times reporter Celia W. Dugger.
While it may seem odd to Americans that a leftist professor would oppose race-based affirmative action, it’s important to remember that many principled liberals took the same position in the United States. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, for example, balked at the constitutionality of racial preferences in the 1974 DeFunis case, instead favoring a system which provides a leg up to “a black applicant who pulled himself out of the ghetto into a junior college” and was offered admission “not because he is black but because as an individual he has shown he has the potential.” Today, however, most Americans on the left have made their peace with race-based class-blind affirmative action.
The irony is that in the years that liberal leaders have come to almost unanimously support racial affirmative action, the programs themselves have become much less economically progressive. As Peter Schmidt reported recently in The Chronicle, a new study by Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor finds that at the most selective institutions, black and Hispanic students “tend to be wealthier than those who enrolled in them in past decades. As of 1972, 9 percent of both black and Hispanic students going on to highly selective colleges came from the most socioeconomically advantaged fourth of society; as of 2004, 35 percent of Hispanic and 49 percent of black students at such institutions came from such a socioeconomic background.” (About 70 percent of whites have consistently come from the wealthiest quartile throughout the entire period.) Universities like having full-tuition-paying students of all colors, Bastedo told Schmidt. “This allows institutions to have their cake and eat it too—they can have a racially and ethnically diverse class and still meet their financial targets.”
This state of affairs may make universities happy, but it doesn’t seem to sit well with many Americans, who oppose racial preferences by 2:1 and favor preferences for low-income students of all races by the same margin. A new post-election survey from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that an astounding 56 percent of Republicans say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Some 57 percent of white evangelicals agreed, as did 49 percent of independents.
As New York Times columnist Charles Blow notes, it seems mind-boggling that these Americans truly believe that anti-white bigotry is “as big a problem” as anti-black bigotry. What might explain the results instead is that Americans see racial preference programs as a form of “discrimination.” Obviously, there is an important moral difference between discrimination in favor of members of historically oppressed groups and discrimination against them, but if this distinction holds little weight with large numbers of people—including half of independents—huge political problems are associated with the policy.
What are the best ways to address the horrendous legacy of apartheid in South Africa (and of slavery and segregation in the U.S) without resorting to the racial distinctions that were the root of the original evil? That is the big question being asked in South Africa—the question raised by William O. Douglas—which is largely ignored by American higher education today.