Beware white liberals bearing gifts. A well-founded concern that every black person should have is that many mainstream intellectual white liberals are more concerned with blacks as an abstraction than they are with our actual well-being. As I read through the New York Times Op-Ed piece on affirmative action at Harvard penned by Yascha Mounk, I saw a familiar pattern and sensed the enormous dangers that blacks would face if they followed his suggestions. Mr. Mounk’s defense of affirmative action is ignorant of the realities of the black experience and thus his policy suggestions are certain to create the sort of backlash that blacks are all too familiar with.
Mounk acknowledges the difficult truth: namely, that Asians have a much harder go of things when attempting to earn admission into Harvard and other elite schools. Fair enough. But, in making the case that Harvard should apparently increase the number of Asian admitted students, he runs squarely into the intractable math. Put plainly, if the percentage of Asian students is raised from, say, 15% to 30%, from whom will those slots be taken? It cannot come from blacks and Latinos, he assures us, and he makes a point to wag his finger at “conservatives [who] point to Harvard’s emphasis on enrolling African-Americans (currently 12 percent of freshmen) and Hispanics (13 percent) but overlook preferences for children of alumni (about 12 percent of students) and recruited athletes (around 13 percent).”
Athletes are a frequent and convenient target in affirmative action discussions, but this is a canard that mischaracterizes the nature of athletic scholarships. Athletic scholarships don’t undermine efforts at diversity, they aid them. On a per capita basis, blacks are actually more than twice as likely to be scholarship athletes than are whites. In some schools this represents an enormous source of black student enrollment. At UCLA, for example, 65% of this year’s admitted black males were scholarship athletes. In other words, if Mr. Mounk is actually interested in maintaining or increasing black enrollment, he would be wise to understand the various characteristics of black educational trajectories with sufficient nuance so as to not scuttle the one large scholarship program in America that disproportionately benefits blacks. Of course, he is not the first white person –nor will be the last- to rush bravely to the defense of his beloved Negro without first bothering to understand them or their situation.
But that is not his biggest issue. The core trick that he is trying to pull is revealed when he asserts that rising Asian admissions need not come at the cost of black and Latino enrollment. Mounk assures us that, “Opponents of affirmative action like to link the two issues, but they are unrelated.” But the math, Mr. Mounk? We cannot raise enrollment everywhere, unless by some alchemy he plans to dole out 150% of admissions. He gets around this by suggesting cutting into admissions given to whites. And this is where his logic gets fuzzy. “The real problem,” Mounk tells us, is that “in a meritocratic [admissions] system, whites would be a minority — and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.” And yet, if we are being honest we must also admit that in a meritocratic system the numbers of blacks and Latinos would also fall precipitously- and none of us are comfortable with that either.
It seems that Mr. Mounk has taken on the role of Minority Admissions Oprah: you get admitted! You get admitted! YOU GET ADMITTED! I’m being facetious, but in actuality, his proposed solution is only slightly less ridiculous. Under his suggestion, blacks and Latinos would presumably continue to be evaluated under the old admissions criteria, giving full credence to the idea of a critical mass of diverse students, whereas whites and Asians would be evaluated under Mr. Mounk’s notion of a meritocratic admissions system. If you’re a black student, such a system would seem to be beneficial so long as it was sustainable. Of course, it cannot be. And therein lies the problem.
White students who complain about Mr. Mounk’s plan would have good cause to see the unfairness. White students would encounter a bifurcated system that in either case inures to their collective disbenefit. They compete directly against minorities for slots only when they are most likely to lose out while at the same time being denied access to any suggestion that the population of a school should roughly reflect that of the nation in instances that such an arrangement would benefit them. This is an aggregation of individually palatable policies that come together in a nightmarish mix. One can imagine the sense of outrage that this would produce.
Actually, we need not imagine- we have seen this before. In 1996, conservative politicians played up the notion of unfairness and goaded California voters into passing Proposition 209, effectively ending affirmative action in California. This was followed shortly thereafter by similar measures in Texas, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma, as well as dozens of lawsuits presently winding their way through the courts. It is important to also recall that the backlash to affirmative action helped to fuel broader white rage, as expressed through anti-immigrant legislation that hurt Latino families throughout the Southwest.
While espousing a “squeeze whitey” approach to admissions might give good white folks like Mr. Mounk a chest-swelling dose of liberal cred, the most likely outcome of any scheme that attempts to provide “meritocracy” to Asians and whites, but affirmative action to blacks and Latinos, is a backlash that effectively kills the very idea of race-conscious admissions, and with it broader national conversations about education reform. Affirmative action is already a teetering edifice, and the Supreme Court seems quite willing to knock the whole thing down. A half-baked scheme of the sort Mr. Mounk suggests would provide more than ample excuse to do so.
In the wake of that destruction, white liberals will no doubt pat themselves on the back in the comfortable self-assurance that they fought the good fight. And, as ever, they would then be gone. But, blacks will be left in a very bad way with neither schools and social systems equipped to get them into top schools nor admissions systems with the ability to account for these shortcomings when judging ability, promise, and deservedness. In that painful moment, blacks will be forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that affirmative action was always social policy on the cheap. It is a policy designed to placate, not educate; in this sense, it does not even rise the level of half-measure. Most perniciously, it has sucked all of the air out of the discussion about race, poverty, and education, such that upon its demise there is nowhere left to go.
This is why I am often vexed over young proper-minded liberals who blithely deploy “white privilege” to explain why it is that whites must bear whatever particular burden that they see them as needing to carry. As an abstraction, I often agree with their basic sentiments (white folks do need to do more), but we do not live in an abstraction, and “white privilege” should not be understood only as an explanation for why certain people find themselves in particular situations; it is, more directly and powerfully, a description of the political, economic, social, and cultural weight of this group. Those who are unmindful of this reality will get squished. Blacks and Latinos were, in the 1970s and 1980s, unmindful of the position they occupied within the broader strategic democratic reality of America, and in crafting affirmative action they overplayed their hand, are now feeling the blowback from this. Importantly, they –and not white liberals- are the ones feeling this and hurt by it.
At core, this fight over admissions at Harvard is about striking a balance between fairness and opportunity. These competing ideas produce intense friction, but the relief for that friction cannot be to use whites as a release valve. For, whatever self-satisfaction that deployment of phrases like “white privilege” might earn us, there are real political costs to white reactions to perceived unfairness. Thus, blacks like myself cannot afford the sort of sloppy abstraction Mr. Mounk deployed in his discussion. Whereas for him our collective situation is perhaps an amusing anthropological diversion, for us it is much more serious stuff. We are –and ever have been- in crisis mode, and would prefer our liberal white brothers not to kick the hornets’ nest, particularly as we are the ones to be stung.
This is not to suggest that blacks are powerless. Though diminished from the 1960s, there remains among pockets of the white population a reservoir of willingness to change certain aspects of American life in order atone for America’s Original Sin. At the moment when many whites seem willing to press the cause of educational equality, we must assertively decline the gift of affirmative action and instead push for genuine progress of a sort that does not seem so specifically and personally unfair to people. Surely, affirmative action as presently conceived is on its deathbed, and we must transition out of this phase and begin pressing for a genuine commitment to black education before that death occurs. More resources for predominantly black schools, more robust federal funds dedicated to helping poor students in poor areas, better teachers in failing schools, etc.
Sadly, history suggests that in this push for real change, blacks will find themselves in lonely country. Affirmative action has always had the double benefit of being both cheap and opposed by conservatives- thus blacks’ liberal white allies can take pride in their defense of it while refusing more substantive action. This is the real cost of the gift of affirmative action.
Every day, conservative America provides ample evidence that blacks have good reason to fear their intentions and policies. I am certainly not in the conservative camp and I am well aware of their dislike for me. But at moments like this we black folks would be wise also to remember: beware whites liberals bearing gifts.