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Race-Specific Crimes Require Race-Specific Solutions
Why we still need race-based affirmative action
Our book, Just Action, characterizes the Supreme Court as illegitimate in matters of racial justice, and calls on citizens to defy court decisions that perpetuate the subordination of African Americans. We review the Court’s history going back 166 years, from its Dred Scott ruling that denied citizenship to free African Americans, to its unconstitutional annihilation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments whose plain intent was not only to abolish slavery but to elevate its victims to equal status in the American republic.
The Court is likely soon to continue its attack on racial equality by prohibiting universities from using affirmative action in their consideration of African American applicants. Anticipating the ruling, in cases targeting the admission policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC), some liberals advocate giving preferences to applicants of any race or ethnicity whose families have low socioeconomic status. Because black families on average have lower incomes and fewer resources than whites, the thinking goes, such programs will do as much, if not more, than race-specific programs for African American representation at competitive colleges.
In a recent article published in The Atlantic, I reviewed a proposal that universities should be race-blind, as the Supreme Court requires, and instead give added consideration to students whose families have little wealth. I show that the recommendation will be ineffective in ensuring fair consideration of black applicants, and is also misguided. A copy of the Atlantic article can be found here.
A preference for low-wealth applicants will not succeed in ensuring fair black representation in the freshman classes of competitive colleges because there are far more whites than African Americans in the overall population. Although black households are more likely to have low wealth, most low-wealth families are not black. African American youths from households with few financial assets are also less likely to be college applicants than whites who are also low wealth. Black families are more disadvantaged than others with the same wealth levels because a century of unconstitutional residential segregation has led to African Americans residing in denser neighborhoods with more pollution, less access to healthy food, fewer banks but more payday lenders, schools with less adequate resources, and more violence. Disadvantaged black students are more likely to attend schools where uniformed police have responsibility for discipline; whites with similar low socioeconomic status are more likely to attend schools where counselors have that role; black 17-year-olds are five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities or adult prisons. All this adds up to a potential college applicant pool in which low-wealth African Americans may have no greater presence than if wealth were not considered.
A low-wealth preference is also misguided because it overlooks middle-class black students who, because of unlawful and unconstitutional discrimination, are also disadvantaged. Middle-class African Americans typically live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than whites with the same economic status. Black students whose families have moderate wealth are more likely than economically similar whites to attend schools that are overwhelmed by the problems of extremely disadvantaged classmates. Middle-class African Americans who nonetheless succeed in such environments should be the prime targets of affirmative action for admission to the most competitive universities, but they will be overlooked by a policy that is only concerned with applicants’ low wealth.
Justifying race-blindness in public policy, Chief Justice John Roberts has insisted, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor instead has observed that this “is a sentiment out of touch with reality, one not required by our Constitution,” and she adds: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination." She is correct.
Civil rights advocates have made a grievous error by accepting the Supreme Court’s current requirement that some preference for black applicants could be tolerated as a means of ensuring the diversity of college classes. But this is not why we need affirmative action. We need it to remedy a long history of segregation and discrimination that disadvantages not only low-wealth but middle-class African American college applicants as well. This is why a low-wealth preference is an inadequate replacement for race-based affirmative action.
We require race-specific remedies to redress race-specific crimes.
If, as expected, the Supreme Court bans affirmative action for purposes of diversity, university presidents should implement a more honest preference policy for qualified black applicants and explain it as a remedy for a powerful history of racial subjugation.
Just Action has a photo of four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina who, in 1960, defied the law and the courts by “sitting-in” at a lunch counter that refused to serve them. The photo caption regrets that, today, racial justice advocates instead wait for the Supreme Court to tell them what they can and can’t do.
In the wake of an adverse decision in the Harvard/UNC cases, college administrators should have no less courage than those four young men, sixty-three years ago.
Just Action is in bookstores now. You can order your copy here.
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