Affirmative Action is Really Hard to Talk About

There’s been a small media firestorm about Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s recent comments on the Abigail Fisher affirmative action case. During the oral arguments, he said: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”

This comment has been widely criticized for being racist, for insinuating that black students don’t belong at academically challenging institutions, and for wanting to take us back to the segregation era. This criticism is coming from many sources, all the way up to the Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, who said:

“It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench of the nation’s highest court. Scalia’s endorsement of racist theories has frightening ramifications, not the least of which is to undermine the academic achievements of African Americans.”

This is, as far as I can tell, a really bad-faith interpretation of Scalia’s comment. He’s not advocating segregation. He’s not saying that black students should be quartered off from elite schools. He’s saying, roughly, that there’s an argument that black students, as a group, would be better off if they were accepted to universities at the same rate as white or Asian students with comparable academic credentials.

This isn’t an uncommon opinion. It’s also been endorsed by Justice Thomas, who said back in 2013 when the supreme court first reviewed this case.

“The University admits minorities who otherwise would have attended less selective colleges where they would have been more evenly matched. But, as a result of the mismatching, many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where underperformance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete. Setting aside the damage wreaked upon the self-confidence of these overmatched students, there is no evidence that they learn more at the University than they would have learned at other schools for which they were better prepared. Indeed, they may learn less.”

I’m not intending to suggest that Thomas’s opinion on affirmative action is somehow more definitive because he is black. Thomas has been a controversial figure for a while, in no small part because of his opposition to affirmative action, and his opinion is certainly not above criticism. But at least his opinion isn’t pattern matched quite as easily to a narrative about rampant, bigoted, institutional racism, and progressive cartoonists might hesitate a little before drawing him in KKK robes.


Which is sort of my point. My issue is not with affirmative action. Truthfully, I think there are ways of framing this discussion in which the case for race-conscious admissions at universities is very compelling. My problem is with how many of my friends have decided not only that affirmative action is good, but that this view is already the consensus of intelligent, decent, moral people.

Nobody should be that confident that their view of affirmative action is a good policy. There are some problems that society has solved– the shape of the earth, for example, or the germ theory of disease, or the chemical formula for water– but how to engineer racial justice isn’t one of them. Like most social policies, the impact of affirmative action isn’t an easy thing to know. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (or trying to get elected).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about political polarization. And if there’s anything about polarization that’s worth understanding, it’s that it is more than simple heated disagreement. Disagreements on important issues should be heated, should inflame passions. People should be invested in the outcomes. Polarization is different. Polarization happens gradually, as more and more political issues are approached as if an ethereal vanguard of good, ethical people have already agreed which view is correct. The result are communities where even entertaining an alternative hypothesis in public makes you a pariah, and collaboration between communities becomes less and less possible.

I don’t have an opinion on affirmative action yet. Or I should say that I do, but it’s not a very confident opinion. It’s tentative, subject to revision as I become more familiar with the arguments and the evidence supporting them. This should be the stance that most people take on most issues, from affirmative action to gun control. Civility is a virtue, not because it’s more refined or respectful, but because there are a lot of problems that we don’t actually understand very well.

I know there are people who will say that I am tone policing when I advocate stronger norms of discourse. I would argue, to the contrary, that my aim is to increase slightly the odds that, when we talk to each other, we’ll learn something.


2 thoughts on “Affirmative Action is Really Hard to Talk About

  1. Hello. I’ve been giving this Affirmative Action (A.A.) policy some thought recently. I realize now after all these years that A.A. is meant for the Most Talented Black Americans, NOT the Least Talented. That sounds cold blooded, but when you think about it, what are we going to do about the Least Talented in the Black community? If America needs to put this much help behind the Most Talented Black student or employee, that means we just leave the Least Talented behind in our society. Because of discrimination & prejudice, Blacks don’t many chances in life in this country. I dare say white Americans get more life chances because of ‘privilege’.

    Thanks for the moderation.


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