Affirmative Action Shouldn’t Be About Diversity

It should be about reparations—not about the supposedly unique perspectives that minorities would offer white students.

IMG_191 / Gearstd / shutterstock / The Atlantic

I was a 16-year-old student at the Bronx High School of Science, scribbling Concrete Blonde lyrics at my desk, when my English teacher abruptly called on me, without a heads-up or any preparation, to explain my thoughts on the word nigger in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Truth be told, I didn’t have an opinion, at least not a sophisticated, nuanced one, because I was a teenager reading Twain for the first time. I was there to learn like everyone else. But suddenly, as one of two black students in the class, I was expected to enhance the learning experiences of my mostly white counterparts. I’ll never forget the terrifying and confusing feeling of going from a part of the classroom to a classroom accessory.

Bronx Science is one of the three original specialized high schools run by the New York City Department of Education. These schools are required by state law to admit students based solely on the uniform Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. As I grew up and succeeded in this cut-throat, supposedly merit-based space, part of me feared any association with affirmative-action programs. I’d earned my way into Bronx Science, and I worried that anyone who didn’t understand how the system worked would assume I’d been given a leg up.

As an adult, I don’t oppose affirmative action—quite the contrary—but I support only certain justifications for it. Affirmative action should be implemented as part of a broader reparations program; the point should be justice, not “diversity.”

I remember hearing a lot about the evils of affirmative action as a high-school student in the 1990s, and more than a few of my classmates figured I would all but automatically gain admission to every college I applied to. They were presumably reading stories about how the University of Michigan, in 1998, began using a 150-point scale to rank applicants, with 100 points needed to guarantee admission. The university gave underrepresented ethnic groups an automatic 20 points on this scale. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, both white residents of Michigan, claimed to have been harmed by this system in their applications to the university.

Their complaint eventually reached the Supreme Court in Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003. The majority opinion held that the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions violated both the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (President Lyndon Johnson’s legislation that originally advanced affirmative action). The Court did, however, rely on precedent to accept the argument that diversity can constitute a compelling state interest.

That precedent was the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a white male, had been rejected two years in a row by the University of California at Davis medical school, which had reserved 16 out of 100 places for qualified minorities.

Four justices defended the use of racial quotas to remedy the burdens placed on minorities by past racial injustice. As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”

But in his majority opinion, Justice Lewis Powell ruled that while UC could use race as a factor in admissions, quotas were impermissible. He argued, moreover, that attaining a diverse student body was the only real interest asserted by the university that survived legal scrutiny. Powell, quoting an unrelated case, emphasized that the “‘nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure’ to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples.”

In its reasoning, the Court suggested that the point of affirmative action was to foster a more varied classroom environment for “leaders,” thus shifting the intended beneficiary of the program from the historically discriminated against to the nation that had discriminated against them. And who are these “leaders”? The future, Powell implied, perhaps without realizing it, depends on white students’ exposure to the supposedly unique ideas and mores that qualified minorities should offer.

While the push for diverse representation in society is important, it has no place in the legislation of affirmative action. Besides not addressing the actual issues—discrimination and inequality—this ideology creates “otherness.” It breeds the singling out of people who haven’t traditionally held positions of power, people who are often seen as either inferior or astonishingly exceptional, and therefore spectacle. This ideology demands wisdom from an ignorant 16-year-old that, rightly, the state should offer.

Affirmative action should be about reparations and leveling a playing field that was legally imbalanced for hundreds of years and not about the re-centering of whiteness while, yet again, demanding free (intellectual) labor from the historically disenfranchised.

Affirmative action, whatever the rationale, has also never been the only, or even the most important, advantage in college admissions. Luke Harris, a Vassar professor, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia University and UCLA—both critical-race-theory pioneers—have noted that what got lost in the University of Michigan fight was that students were also awarded 10 points for attending elite high schools, eight points for taking a certain number of AP courses, and four points for being legacies. That’s 22 points that certain affluent and middle-class students had built in that poor, first-generation college students had little or no access to. This structure rewarded students who already benefited from living in upscale neighborhoods, who had successful parents or parents who, at the very least, knew how to succeed in “the system,” and who continued to benefit from the affirmative action of not descending from people who for generations were banned from reading, buying property, and living in safe neighborhoods with decent schools.

Somehow, advantages of this sort are often invisible to the general public. And if they’re made visible, the most coddled people in American society tend to get their feelings hurt—and insist on their self-worth. This dynamic explains the theater of defensiveness that played before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2018, as then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who attended one of the most expensive prep schools in the nation and who is the son of a lobbyist and judge, sneered, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the No. 1 law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.” Kavanaugh’s grandfather Everett Edward Kavanaugh went to Yale as an undergraduate. If Kavanaugh truly does believe that he is an island of his own merits, his lack of historical knowledge and his lack of awareness of his own privilege are terrifying for any judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice who could soon preside over affirmative-action cases.

I’m not the only person who’s skeptical of the diversity rationale. Lee Bollinger, current president of Columbia University—and whose name was attached to Gratz v. Bollinger as then president of the University of Michigan—sees both its advantages and pitfalls. When I interviewed him for my graduate thesis just weeks before he presided over my 2013 Columbia commencement ceremony, he said his legal team presented the more society-appeasing argument somewhat instrumentally. “We needed to win a major legal battle in the context of trying to win the hearts and minds of people about the issue,” he recalled.

Although he believes diversity is an important part of education, he doesn’t think it should be the sole permissible legal basis for an affirmative-action program. Referring to the 1978 Bakke case that struck down racial quotas, Bollinger said, “On the legal side, Bakke made it clear that you couldn’t use past discrimination as a rationale. I felt that was wrong and still feel that’s wrong.” When making the case for affirmative action, he prefers to start the conversation by talking about Brown v. Board of Education as opposed to Bakke. “I’m increasingly worried that there is a historical amnesia under way,” he said.

Amnesia, defensiveness, and a lack of focus on any one issue as many of us scramble to address the current, nonstop assault on progressive values. What’s the practical solution? I’d rather publicly dissect Twain than pretend I can solve an almost insurmountable problem I didn’t create; I just know that not having a proper conversation about the purpose of affirmative action is dangerous. And there have been ideas percolating around restorative justice and reparations for a long time.

In 2013, Britain, France, and the Netherlands were sued by 14 Caribbean countries demanding what could be hundreds of billions of pounds in reparations for slavery. I read the documentation and thought, Yes, let’s at least talk about how those European countries flourished, in part, because of brutality and slavery. Let’s start there instead of a lopsided debate about how EU countries should or shouldn’t be benevolent enough to give the refugee descendants of the countries they pillaged legal status and a chance to succeed. That sort of acknowledgment, on both sides of the Atlantic, would be a start.