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The end of affirmative action

That's what Ben and I talk about in this week's Scripps column, looking at the case that's headed before the Supreme Court. My take:
Should affirmative action go away? Probably not. Will it? Probably.

The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts seems to have its knives sharpened.

So while liberals should mount a defense of affirmative action in college admissions, they must also prepare for its probable demise.

What comes after? Texas -- where the current case originates -- offers one way forward. The state's public universities offer automatic admission to the top 10 percent of graduating students from every high school in the state.

Because those schools have wildly varying economic and racial compositions, the result is that Lone Star colleges have a fairly diverse student population. That kind of creativity will be needed going forward.

Wait: Why should diversity be a goal? That's easy. America is diverse. Unless you believe that white men possess all the talent and smarts -- and some people really do believe that --it's criminal not to foster the resources and resourcefulness of all our country's citizens.

"Even right-wingers get nervous with racial homogeneity," Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy told the magazine Mother Jones. "If Patrick Buchanan were elected president of the United States, there would have been a person of color in the Cabinet."

For more than 300 years, America's culture and law enforced racial preferences -- whites, of course, were preferred. We still live with the ramifications: A few decades of affirmative action don't make up for the fact that many minority groups weren't allowed to start the 100-yard dash until whites got a 50-yard head start. Critics of affirmative action say they want the law to be colorblind and advancement based on some notion of "merit." That sounds good, but also conveniently preserves the advantages created by 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow.

Those critics appear on the verge of victory, however. But affirmative action is a battleground, not the whole war. So liberals must ask themselves: What's next?
Ben expresses his own desire to end affirmative action in his take, and you'll have to click the link to read it. I'd like to expand on my own take a bit, if I may.

It doesn't surprise me that conservatives don't like affirmative action. I think there are principled non-racist—even anti-racist—reasons for doing so. What bothers me, though, is how little I see my righty friends acknowledge that affirmative action sprung up as a response to an actual problem: That the aforementioned 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow left a lot of folks without sufficient resources—take that word however you like—to achieve and succeed on society's new colorblind terms.

Conservatives like to talk a lot about how "culture matters" and often it sounds like a bit of a dogwhistle to liberal ears, a way of suggesting that bourgeois whites really are superior to pathology-afflicted blacks, but in ways that (maybe) have less to do with genetics than the poor choices that whites as a group and blacks as a group just happened to make. And they also talk quite a bit about the distorting effects that big government can have on culture. Yet you never really hear them put two and two together when it comes to race, and acknowledge again that a longstanding legal-cultural regime enforced both by senators and sheriffs for hundreds of years might've caused damage that still needs repair. Instead—and this is giving my conservative friends the best benefit of the doubt—they seem to have believed that Martin Luther King Jr. came to save everybody, 1968 happened, everything was fair after that, and anybody who can't make it must be to blame for their own problems. This is either stunningly naive or, well, something more pernicious. Among conservatism as a whole, it's probably a bit of both.

My friend (I'll make the presumption) and sometimes vigorous critic William Voegeli has written an entire book about how liberalism doesn't have a limiting principle that makes it possible for conservatives to do welfare-state business. (That would make liberals conservatives, but that's another conversation.) But taking conservatives at their word that all they want to do is maximize liberty and opportunity for all Americans, then this issue is a huge blind spot for them: Simply put, conservatives don't seem to have an animating principle that moves them to address problems of this sort.

Maybe their answer is simply: Study hard and get married. (Or, in the case of the occasional black conservative like Thomas Sowell: Leave us alone, government.) And I'm sure there are smart folks who do see a problem here and have come up with conservative-minded solutions. But conservatism, broadly, seems to treat affirmative action as a government program meant to oppress whites—and not as a well-meaning-but-misguided attempt to offer opportunities to those who otherwise have none. I can see that, theoretically, there might be two problems: That racism made opportunity hard, but that affirmative action compounds the problem. Listening to conservatives, I get the impression that only the latter problem exists. And that, I think, is also a problem.


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