• Russell Nieli, Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide, Encounter Books, 2012, 456 pages, $29.95.
RALEIGH — The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion June 24 in a case (Fisher v. Texas) involving the constitutionality of racial preferences in college admissions. The court’s majority decided to remand the case to the lower courts to apply “strict scrutiny” to the University of Texas’ admission policy, which favored less qualified students from certain “underrepresented” groups.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas was in favor of striking down such “affirmative action” policies on the grounds that they violate the 14th Amendment.
If you read Russell Nieli’s book Wounds That Will Not Heal, you should come to the same conclusion as Thomas. Racial preference policies (in education and elsewhere), far from helping to bring the nation together, keep the old sores of discrimination from healing. Nieli, who teaches at Princeton University, gives us a scholarly but not pedantic overview of the effects of “affirmative action” and any objective reader, even devout liberals, must concede that he makes a powerful case against continuing it.
Until 1965, the civil rights movement had sought to overturn the entrenched, often legally mandated discrimination that was the ugly legacy of Jim Crow and bring about a color-blind society where people would be judged, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But a speech by President Lyndon Johnson at Howard University began a disastrous change.
Johnson argued in favor of using government power to “make the race equal,” thereby opening up an entirely different view of what it meant to advocate civil rights — preferences in favor of people who happened to come from certain minority groups. The spirit of this new approach to civil rights was captured in an unguarded comment Justice Thurgood Marshall made during the debate over the DeFunis case in 1974: “You guys have been practicing discrimination for years. Now it is our turn.”
Although civil rights advocates continued to pay lip service to the colorblind ideal, many saw that they would benefit from shifting to demands for “affirmative action,” which is to say, preferential treatment for favored groups. They started insisting on quotas for minority admissions at elite colleges, for the work forces at companies and government agencies, and for the recipients of government contracts. Today, obligations to satisfy racial quotas (even though they can’t be called that) are almost ubiquitous in America.
Nieli surveys all of that and argues that affirmative action has accomplished nothing except to turn the country into “a confederation of contending tribes” where ancestry trumps individual merit. Instead of healing the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow, it encourages minorities to rely on their ancestry rather than self-improvement to get ahead.
One of Nieli’s principal arguments is that affirmative action has become a crutch that harms those it is supposed to help. He writes, “[R]acial preference policies have lulled substantial segments of the black middle class into complacency and half-hearted performance in our increasingly education-focused world.” He supports his case by citing the research of the late University of California-Berkeley sociologist John Ogbu, whose study of black high school students in the wealthy Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights revealed the malign influence of preferences.
Ogbu found that those students, while suffering from none of the handicaps of being “disadvantaged,” nevertheless performed poorly in school. The reason? They knew that with the wind of “affirmative action” at their backs, mediocre work was good enough.
That mind-set carries over into college. Nearly all of our top schools, Nieli points out, bend over backward to create a “diverse” student body. They admit applicants who have (or at least claim to have) “minority status” even though their academic profiles are significantly weaker than white and Asian students who must be rejected to make room for them.
Once in college, many of those admitted to make the school’s “diversity” numbers look good continue to coast, often gravitating into soft academic departments where the work is easy but of little lasting value.
Nieli also adduces evidence for the “mismatch” argument — that admitting academically weaker students hurts them because they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage compared with their classmates, especially in disciplines where knowledge is cumulative. We would have more minority mathematicians and scientists if it weren’t for affirmative action mismatching them with universities that are too demanding for them.
Zealots, insisting that racial preferences must be maintained, avoid the mismatch argument, usually by changing the subject to the claimed “educational benefits” that white and Asian students derive from “diversity” on campus.
Nieli argues that it is merely wishful thinking to believe that engineering student bodies for “diversity” leads to improved cross-cultural understanding. Almost all of the minority students admitted usually are culturally indistinguishable their white and Asian classmates — they’re all American teenagers who have grown up with largely the same influences. Moreover, the actual experience of “diversity” on campus is often self-segregation and resentment rather than the “healing” that college leaders claim.
Wounds That Will Not Heal does a great service by demonstrating that affirmative action is another of those social programs that make leftist politicians and academics feel good about themselves but harms the imagined beneficiaries and tears at our social fabric. Let’s hope that the judges who will again consider the Fisher case read this book first.