The black alumni of Harvard are unhappy with the university's affirmative action program. It helps blacksbut the wrong ones. The New York Times says that there are 520 black Harvard undergraduates (8% of the total), but "the majority of themperhaps as many as two-thirds [are] West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples." That leaves "only about a third of the students…from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves."
It's a sensitive topic for Harvard, other elite colleges, and defenders of affirmative action. (So sensitive that the Times had to say "perhaps" and "about"Harvard does not compile this type of information about its students.) Putting the matter delicately, the Times says, "Many argue that it was students…disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions." Jesse Jackson's position, though not his syntax, is more direct: "Universities have to give weight to the African-American experience because that is for whom [sic] affirmative action was aimed in the first place. That intent must be honored."
It's hard for conservatives not to gloat: this is a dilemma that couldn't happen to a nicer public policy. It's important to realize, however, that the problem of elite schools enrolling the "wrong" blacks didn't just happen to affirmative action. It's a direct consequence of the way affirmative action has been rationalized and practiced.
It was not inevitable that "diversity" would become the justificationand ultimately even a synonymfor affirmative action. Of the five Supreme Court justices who voted to uphold affirmative action in the 1978 Bakke decision, four of them relied on arguments about social justice and redressing historical wrongs.
The fifth, Lewis Powell, took a different tack. He said that college affirmative action policies could survive the Court's strict scrutiny, which is usually lethal to racial classifications, if and only if they were used to promote a diverse student body. That is, enrolling an eclectic class provides every student in it with a better educationbetter, by virtue of the chance to encounter people with a wide array of viewpoints and backgrounds and the need to learn how to get along with them. That benefit to the students who do get in outweighs and justifies, in Powell's view, the harm visited on the applicants who are rejected because they wouldn't add enough diversity to campus.
It took 25 years before Powell's doctrine commanded a majority in the Supreme Court; five justices endorsed it in last year's University of Michigan law school decision. But it took 25 minutes for government- and university-based educrats to embrace the diversity rationale for affirmative action. The argument for diversity promised them a way to pursue affirmative action in the name of an unobjectionable platitude, avoiding the controversies brought on by arguments about compensatory justice.
Having said, in so many ways for so many years, that diversity is wonderful, it's now going to be hard to explain that getting affirmative action right requires making it less diverse. Dahlia Lithwick, who favors affirmative action, foresaw this problem two years ago: "If we're really after 'diversity' in schools, we should recruit more Maori warriors.… What Justice Powell was calling race-neutral diversity was always known to be a code word for racial diversity. Powell wasn't really interested in filling colleges with Alsatian goat herders. He was looking for some neutral-sounding reason to give minority candidates a small 'plus' in the admissions office."
It will take all the mental agility that a Harvard education can provide to argue that studying next to immigrants or biracial kids diminishes diversity, while reducing their numbers to admit more students descended from slaves enhances it. The obvious solution would be to expand the latter group, not at the expense of the former, but at the expense of the other 92% of the Harvard student body: whites, Asians, Hispanics, Alsatians.
There are two possible explanations for why this hasn't happened already. The first, for which Michael Moore has bought the film rights, says that the cross-burning bigots who run Harvard want as few blacks there as possible and that the smallest possible proportion of those enrolled be "real" blacks. The second is that it's inherently difficult to square the circle, to run a university that is both highly selective and demographically representative. As Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist and West Indian native, told the Times, "The doors are wide openas wide open as they ever will befor native-born black middle-class kids to enter elite colleges."
For years, affirmative action's proponents have tried to explain how, for the sake of diversity, blacks are more equal than whites. Now they get to argue that, for the sake of equality, some blacks are more diverse than others.