For some reason or other, we expect that the Supreme Court will solve the problem of affirmative action. Some people actually believe that when the Court definitively approves affirmative action, racial animus will end and people who on the lower end of the achievement scale will magically rise to its higher ranks.
Those who believe in court mandates or who believe that you can legislate reality have been having a difficult time wrapping their minds around the failure of affirmative action. Today’s student activism-- mindless, pointless and radical at the same time-- is but a symptom of a policy failure.
Affirmative action policies are the contrary of meritocracy. In a true meritocracy, everyone is judged by his merits. In traditional Chinese meritocracy—the Chinese seem to have invented the idea many centuries ago—everyone has the right to take the same qualifying exam, whether for entrance into schools of higher learning or into the class of mandarins.
Those who come out on top come out on top. Those who don’t, don’t. No one judged by anything other than his ability to answer the questions on the test.
It’s fair, don’t you think?
With affirmative action, it does not matter if everyone has taken the same test. If the outcomes seem skewed in favor of members of one group, the test must be rigged. By these thinkers, equality only exists when the outcomes are proportionate to the racial or ethnic mix of the test takers. If everyone has been telling you, has been pounding into you, that you are just as good as everyone else, then disparate test results can only be a sign that the tests are rigged.
In New York’s Stuyvesant High School, where admission is based on test scores, 70% of the students are Chinese or Asian, 20% are white and the rest are African-American or Hispanic.
This all defies the convictions of those who believe in equality. By their lights, all inequality is based on bigotry and oppression. If everyone is equal in all ways, then inequality is a sign of injustice. It does not cross the mind of these social justice warriors that some people work harder than others, that some people have more aptitude for certain subjects than others, that some people live in more stable homes and communities.
And it certainly does not cross their minds that they ought to gain more than the most superficial understand of what the word equality means.
For them, it’s all bigotry all the time. It’s almost as though they believe that the system is rigged against them, to the point where they can never succeed, no matter what. This is not the kind of thinking that will motivate you to excel.
Evidently, a culture that values meritocracy is not at all the same as a culture that plays on identity politics.
David Brooks explained the difference this morning:
The identity politics the students have produced inverts the values of the meritocracy. The meritocracy is striving toward excellence; identity politics is deeply egalitarian. The meritocracy measures you by how much you’ve accomplished; identity politics measures you by how much you’ve been oppressed. In the meritocracy your right to be heard is earned through long learning and quality insight; in identity politics your right to be heard is earned by your experience of discrimination. The meritocracy places tremendous emphasis on individual agency; identity politics argues that agency is limited within a system of oppression.
The current wave of identity politics shows that affirmative action has failed. It has failed even more miserably since our great nation, in a spasm of righteousness, decided in 2008 to make the presidency an affirmative action job.
As social experiments go, the presidency of Barack Obama has been a major failure. It could have convinced minority group members to work harder to compete in the world and even to reject the false promises that were being offered by affirmative action. In truth, it did just the opposite. It made them even more embittered.
If Barack Obama could not succeed and could not improve the lot of black Americans, that could only mean that the racism and corruption of the system was far worse than they had imagined. In place of cosmetic fixes, the new radicals wanted to destroy the entire system, to bring down America.
No one seemed to notice that the more you think about bigotry, the more you dedicate your mind to finding it and fighting it, the less you will be working to improve yourself and to rise up in the meritocratic ranks.
Nathan Heller identified the role of Obama in a recent New Yorker article:
When they were eleven or twelve, Barack Obama was elected President, and people hailed this as a national-historic moment that changed everything. “That’s the bill of goods they’ve been sold,” Romano explains. “And, as they get older, they go, ‘This is crap! It’s not true!’ ” They saw the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. And, at schools like Oberlin, they noticed that the warm abstractions of liberalism weren’t connecting with the way things operated on the ground.
Ah, yes, “the warm abstractions of liberalism.” The students who have been admitted to schools by affirmative action have been recipients of the good feelings, the warm empathy of liberals. They have been told that they are just as good as everyone else, and that, given the right environment they would excel like everyone else. Do these students, being the objects of a grand social experiment in idealistic liberalism, realize that these liberals who receive their votes have been lying to them?
Certainly, warm and cuddly liberals do not quite understand what has gone wrong. Heller explains their special problem:
Such reports flummoxed many people who had always thought of themselves as devout liberals. Wasn’t free self-expression the whole point of social progressivism? Wasn’t liberal academe a way for ideas, good and bad, to be subjected to enlightened reason? Generations of professors and students imagined the university to be a temple for productive challenge and perpetually questioned certainties. Now, some feared, schools were being reimagined as safe spaces for coddled youths and the self-defined, untested truths that they held dear. Disorientingly, too, none of the disputes followed normal ideological divides: both the activists and their opponents were multicultural, educated, and true of heart. At some point, it seemed, the American left on campus stopped being able to hear itself think.
Heller was explicitly writing about Oberlin College. He selected well because Oberlin has been a laboratory for diversity.
A school like Oberlin, which prides itself on being the first to have regularly admitted women and black students, explicitly values diversity. But it’s also supposed to lift students out of their circumstances, diminishing difference. Under a previous ideal, one that drew on terms such as “affirmative action,” students like Eosphoros and Bautista would have been made to feel lucky just to be in school. Today, they are told that they belong there, but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities, whatever that might mean. They bear out the school’s vision. In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class. An irony surrounds the whole endeavor, and a lot of students seemed to see it.
As it happens, these students have no respect for authority and believe that the least harsh word is a crime. One professor was dismayed by the fact that today’s students cannot even make eye contact. To my mind, this is an excellent observation and a damning indictment. These students are far from being ready to assume adult responsibilities. They are still cry babies, running to Mommy and Daddy at the first slight:
Copeland has taught at Oberlin since the nineteen-seventies. He was puzzled by many things about today’s students—“They do not make eye contact! They do not look into your motherfucking eyes!”—but what galled him most was their apparent eagerness to go over their professors’ heads. In the late fall of 2014, during rehearsals for a play he was coördinating, he spoke sharply to a student: a misfire not of language, he says, but of tone. The student ran out of the room. Copeland says that he wanted to smooth ruffled feathers and keep the production on track, so he agreed to meet with the student and his department chair. At the meeting, the student asked that he leave the room, and she and the department head spoke alone for about half an hour.
Of course, as Shelby Steele has been pointing for decades now, once you have different admissions standards for different ethnic groups, anyone who belongs to a disadvantaged group is assumed to have received an unfair preference. Even if said student could have gotten in on his merits, affirmative action policies stigmatize him. Thus, other students do not treat him as one of the group, but as a special case, someone who has not earned his way by merit.
Heller rendered the experience of one black woman:
Jasmine Adams, a senior and a member of the black-student union, Abusua, is talking about arriving at Oberlin.
“It was, like, one day I was at college having fun, and the next day someone called me the N-word, and I had no avenue,” she says. She has on a red flannel button-down shirt, open over a tank top. There’s a crisp red kerchief around her head, knotted above a pair of hip blue-and-brown-tortoised glasses. “My parents don’t have the funds to drive to Oberlin when I’m crying and ready to self-harm. The only way that I can facilitate those conversations is to advocate for myself. That in itself makes me a part of a social-justice climate.”
For Adams, everything is about race. After all, it’s one subject where she has a superior knowledge and more experience. Unfortunately, this narrows her focus and causes her to refuse to learn about anything else. Identify people by race and they come to think that that is all they are.
In Heller’s words:
“We’re asking to be reflected in our education,” Adams cuts in. “I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!” She shrugs incredulously. “As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
Black students often end up thinking that they have been conned. It would be nice if they understood that they have been conned by well-meaning liberals, but that is perhaps too much to expect.
In Heller’s words:
But at Oberlin a number of students seem to want to run away. More than a few have told me that they are leaving Oberlin, or about to leave Oberlin, or thinking about leaving Oberlin—and this at one of the country’s most resource-rich, student-focussed schools. (“Many students say things,” Krislov tells me.) A number of them, especially less privileged students such as Adams and Eosphoros, speak of higher education as a con sold to them on phony premises.
Carey, like Bautista, went to élite schools on scholarships; she says that, for her, the past few years have been about “unlearning” most of what she had been taught. She put together the symposium without support from the college, in part because she thinks that higher education, being a tool of capitalism, can’t be redeemed. Instead, her goal these days is to help people like her survive college and get on with their lives. “There’s been a shift from explicit racism to implicit racism,” she says. “It’s still racism. But now you’re criticized for complaining about it, because you’re allowed to go to college: ‘What are you complaining about? There’s a black President!’
This is what happens when a policy fails.