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.”
Caitlin Flanagan: The dueling deities of Harvard
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.