By Kevin Wolfman
Affirmative action, White America's eternal nemesis, is about to get another close-up.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Grutter v. Bollinger that race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan's law school, as well as universities nationwide, were acceptable. While the Court rejected the constitutionality of strict "quota" admissions, it reaffirmed that institutions were free to consider race as one factor, among many others, in admissions decisions. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor held that affirmative action "further[ed] a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
But this is 2012. O'Connor, the conservative swing vote in the Bollinger case, is long gone from the bench. In her place sits Samuel Alito, a Justice who would be conservative enough to win the upcoming Republican primary in Arizona, were he so inclined. (O'Connor, herself an Arizona native, wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in the desert.) With the replacement of the conservative O'Connor with the arch-conservative Alito, it was only a matter of time before a miffed white applicant denied entrance to her school of choice decided to raise a stink about affirmative action in federal court. So here we are, with the Supreme Court once again poised to possibly throw affirmative action in the trashcan, just nine years after polishing and displaying it proudly on the mantel.
The case against affirmative action has always been, and will always be, the same: Considering race in university admissions is "reverse discrimination"—explicitly racist, and therefore against the law. It's a fair point. Given that each university has a limited number of slots for new students, the application process is a zero-sum game by definition. Giving a race-centric boost to certain minorities (Asians excluded, of course) automatically decreases the odds of acceptance for white applicants.
On the surface, therefore, this is a pretty cut-and-dried case. Affirmative action decreases whites' chances for admission due solely due to the color of their skin, so that makes it illegal.
This argument is shallow and incomplete, however. The fact remains that affirmative action, while possibly harmful to white college applicants, presents significant benefits to white college students. O'Connor stated in her Bollinger opinion that a "diverse student body" provides "educational benefits," presumably to white students as well as those of color. What are these benefits, exactly?
For one, diverse student bodies actually promote higher-level thinking skills. As demonstrated by Stanford education researcher Anthony Lising Antonio, white students who socialize regularly in multiracial peer groups tend to reason more critically about political and social issues than those who hang out in homogenous crowds. Rather than resorting to shallow, emotional appeals, they demonstrate increased "integrative complexity," weaving multiple perspectives and shades of nuance into their arguments. (Read this article for a more complete discussion of the Antonio study.)
At the same time, college, as a whole, makes students of all colors more tolerant, compassionate, and inclusive. These are universal values that any well-adjusted human being can get behind, and increasing diversity on campus can only accelerate students' embrace of them. The value of the college experience is not limited to the acquisition of professional skills and a rise in lifetime earning potential. College honestly promotes understanding, acceptance, and unity across racial and ethnic lines. That is not a warm and fuzzy liberal talking point, but an established scientific fact. White students benefit significantly from the experience of living and learning alongside students of color—and vice versa.
These are just a couple of the "educational benefits" cited by Justice O'Connor in 2003, and they still exist in 2012.
Of course, even if opponents of race-conscious admissions accept the fact that diversity does help make white students become better critical thinkers, more tolerant citizens, and more compassionate human beings, they are likely to fall back on this position: In the end, the minority applicants who get accepted to college through affirmative action programs just don't "deserve" their spots. Because affirmative action admits often have relatively lower grade point averages and/or standardized test scores than their peers, critics claim that they do not rightfully "earn" their positions on campus.
This would be a valid argument if grade point averages and test scores were universally reliable measures of past performance, current aptitude, and future potential. They are most assuredly not—for many reasons, which will be discussed in a future article. For now, it will suffice to state that academic "merit" cannot be reliably measured solely with GPAs and SATs.
Do a few white applicants lose out a spot in their college of choice due to affirmative action policies? Yes. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges and universities in this country that provide both a quality education and an attractive lifestyle. As journalist and Yale grad Alexandra Robbins persuasively illustrates in her book The Overachievers, when it comes to future earnings and career advancement, where one attends college matters much less than how well one performs in college academically.
Among other things, Robbins cites a study that followed the careers of two groups of Harvard applicants. The first group's students were admitted to Harvard and enrolled in the school. The second group's students were admitted to Harvard but chose to enroll elsewhere, usually at a less prestigious place (it's hard to find anywhere as prestigious as Harvard). Years later, the students in the second group were just as professionally successful as the students in the first group. The lesson? If you are "qualified" for a particular school, you are probably going to end up just as well off as the students at that school, whether or not you actually attend that school yourself.
White America's never-ending hissy fit over affirmative action may be just one more symptom of our society's unhealthy obsession with so-called "top" colleges. Students (and parents, of course) have been brainwashed by self-interested, for-profit entities like The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and U.S. News and World Report into believing that a rejection from a college perceived as "elite" will seriously damage an applicant's odds of future success. As Robbins demonstrated, however, this is simply untrue.
The intellectual and social benefits of campus diversity, for students both white and non-white, are clear. Affirmative action, in turn, bolsters these benefits by diversifying the college environment. The white applicants who miss out on attending their first-choice schools due to affirmative action policies will, in all likelihood, not suffer any real long-term negative effects—they are still perfectly "qualified," after all. So, is the principle of "race-blind" admissions worth the practical decreases in intellectual strength and social cohesiveness that would result?
If the Supreme Court declares "yes," it won't just be the minorities that suffer.
Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Not Politics: The Student's Guide to Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.