December 1, 2009

Societal discrimination — a justification for preferences?

By Societal discrimination — a justification for preferences?

Author: Joshua Thompson

I am proud to applaud my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, for an article that appears in the The Badger Herald, the school newspaper.  The article discusses whether preferences (which the author, Alec Slocum, properly describes as "discrimination") should be allowed for (public) university admissions.  In Grutter v. Bollinger, "diversity" was promoted as the University of Michigan law school's rationale for race preferences.  However, in a well-written passage, Mr. Slocum properly recognizes a limitation on this rationale:

"Some activists would likely argue here that even at such a point, in the interest of maintaining a variety of perspectives on campus, race should still be a relevant factor for college affirmative action programs. This justification simply fails.

It is entirely unfair to bring a student into a classroom as a representative of an entire race’s view, and entirely simple-minded to think that such a student would necessarily carry a different perspective because of their race in a world in which racial biases are at a minimum. An application, personal statement and biography will lend you an individual’s perspective, not the pigment of his or her skin."

(I made the same point, in a more word-smithy way, here.)

Where I disagree with the article, however, is Mr. Slocum's defense of preferences designed to remedy the lingering effects of societal discrimination.  He writes: "[A] person’s starting point in life [should]not dictate where they can finish. Up to and including the present, racial prejudices in the population have worked to violate this ideal, and thus race has rightly been included as a factor in affirmative action decisions."

The sentence is, unfortunately, factually false.  Race has not been (and cannot be) included as a factor in admissions for this purpose.  In fact, the Supreme Court has clearly articulated (in Bakke, Wygant, Croson, and Adarand) that "general societal discrimination" is NOT a compelling governmental interest.  The only avenue that remains open to universities is the "diversity" rationale that Mr. Slocum soundly rejects.

I also disagree that universities should use different, less pernicious preferences systems (income, class, etc.), but at least the Constitution doesn't explicitly forbid those.  Nevertheless, it's a well-written article by the young badger.

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