It’s more important to accomplish goals than to abide by principles. The end justifies the means. Isn’t this historical wisdom, the foundation on which America was built, or should have been built, and anyway, people are so much smarter today, at least progressives are. Right? Wrong, at least on the idea of affirmative action, an absurdist view of justice that could make life worse for Black Americans and undercuts a precious norm of our society.
Affirmative action is the practice of giving some people opportunities and thereby denying other people opportunities based on skin color instead of merit. It’s a form of condescension, it’s more likely to damage the unqualified than help them, and it can cheat those the unqualified may end up serving. It’s against the law and morally amiss, itself a form of discrimination that leads supposed beneficiaries to think their futures are wholly dependent on others rather than themselves.
It has mostly been seen in prestigious colleges and universities, but the Biden administration has dismissed a trial against one of them, and progressive educators are huffing and puffing to spread it in all directions There is an answer to any criticism of it, namely that the critic is a racist. Somewhat more subtly, some say that, yes, it is wrong to practice skin-color discrimination against down-and-out Black Americans but wonderful to discriminate against the privileged whites.
But the Black Americans who get the opportunities are not necessarily down-and-out, whites who lose out are not necessarily well-to-do, and, if this is your case, why not base affirmative action on poverty? Poor Black Americans are worse off, although, in recent years, tens of thousands of unemployed, desperate, middle-aged white working-class Americans have been killing themselves off by means of alcohol, drugs and suicide.
Even based on poverty, however, affirmative action would have its problems. Consider Asian-Americans who face such discrimination although they are better educated and better off financially as a group than white Americans. Despite their out-of-reach academic qualifications, Asian-Americans have seen the country’s most prestigious universities dramatically limit their numbers to the advantage of white and Black Americans. Well, administrators say, they want diversity and are judging applicants holistically, and, yes, you don’t want academic skills to be the whole story, but research does not treat the “holistic” argument kindly.
The Black intellectual Thomas Sowell says one indication of a Black family thriving is a library card in the home. No, the card in itself didn’t do it, but stressing education, turning off the TV, having two parents in the home, emphasizing homework and putting achievement above resentment is what did help these Black Americans.
I do not walk in a Black skin and I am sure I sense only a fraction of what Black Americans have had to endure and are enduring. Attacking racism certainly matters. But Sowell, Shelby Steele, Jason Riley and Justice Clarence Thomas are among those Black American super-brains who do not believe in affirmative action or other rescues leaving Blacks to think their only hope is white rescue, that they have no individual agency. We have multiple examples to the contrary, as in 4.5 million Black Americans having college degrees.
It wasn’t affirmative action that did it; Black Americans who go to prestige colleges without actually qualifying are up against a style of teaching that won’t teach just about anyone who did not qualify. There are other colleges and universities out there that are plenty good, however, and what we need, among other things, is more charter schools and improvements in public schools to supplement Black Americans overcoming the progressives.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected].