Why the Coming Debate About Affirmative Action Will Be Different

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Two veterans of the controversies of the 1990s explain how they'll treat the issue differently when it reemerges next year.

Glenn Loury, who has spent decades studying and commenting on race in America, and John McWhorter, a thoughtful and experienced commentator on the same subject, dedicated a recent Bloggingheads.tv conversation to the coming affirmative action debate. "Next year we're going to be back in it," McWhorter stated. "There's almost certainly going to be a Supreme Court decision about affirmative action. Probably they're going to decide against it. And also the Voting Rights Act of 1965." He mused that "the question is what are we going to say?" In the video above both men give their answers.

Among other things, they agree that the conversation about race in America feels very different than it did in 1995, or even in 2003, when the Supreme Court last weighed in on affirmative action. In a more diverse country and globalized world people may less willing to see things through a black-white frame.

The arguments they're willing to champion have changed too.

Here's a portion of Loury's comments:

This is the umpteenth time. Here we go once again. And I can say some of the things. I don't want to do. I am tired of apologizing. I am tired of making excuses. I am tired of fighting rear-guard actions against the arc of history which can't keep a special place for protecting black people from the ebb and flow of social forces forever. And eventually we've got to stand or fall. I'm sorry. I'm not making a policy pronouncement now. I am trying to make a philosophical or existential pronouncement. How do you want to live in the world? Must you, will you, can you always be a victim? Can you always be fighting the good fight on behalf of the forces of civil rights light against the dark forces of conservative reaction? 

So I was just in Korea. They've got crammed schools on every avenue. It's the largest industry. Education is the largest industry in the country. People get engineering degrees and open up storefront tutoring services because parents are prepared to spend 10 and 15 percent of their annual income educating their children outside of the public sphere, so that they can compete on the national exams and so that they can be excellent. So now suppose it was the case that there were more Korean American students showing up at UCLA and the University of Michigan than there were black and Latino students. There's almost certainty that that's true. Now we've got to have a policy? We've got to have affirmative action? Okay, so now we have a policy, because there's a rationale, there's reasoning, there's the history, you can't have a diverse institution if you don't have some blacks there... and now we've got to fall on our swords about the policy? Now the policy is going to become the measure and the test of the progressiveness of the society...? I'm not going there. I am just not getting up on that soapbox and spewing out that spiel again. I'm just not.

It's a pleasure to watch these two think through the issues. Whether you agree or not is beside the point. There's more in the clip above, and the entire conservation is worth your while to absorb. For basic background on the affirmative action case that the Supreme Court is set to decide go here.  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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