what about effects?
In light of the decision by the Supreme Court in the now-famous New Haven firefighters case– or, rather, the decision by our country’s ruling philosopher king, Anthony Kennedy– I think we need to pause and consider effects in addition to principle when it comes to affirmative action and what it has meant for the preservation of a multiracial society. This, incidentally, was part of the appeal of the Slate piece on the case that Mark rightly praised.
Consider, for example, the abolition of racial preferences in the University of California system in 1996. We can talk about the principles involved, and we have, ad nauseum, as a public discourse. But what about the effects? In the UC system, the effects have been dramatic: black and Hispanic students are significantly underrepresented in comparison to their numbers in the state generally. That effect may not play out in the same way throughout the country, if racial preferences are done away with en masse. But I see no reason to suppose that they wouldn’t, and California, our most populous state (and one of the most racially diverse) would seem to be an ideal test case. The results have been dramatic, and they have been scary, if you believe that society has a vested interest in maintaining something resembling equity between the races, in terms of income, in terms of education, and in terms of social mobility. The Ricci case threatens to do for the country’s job market what the UC decision has done for California’s university population. And even if we can draw no conclusions about Ricci’s larger effects on employment, surely, the stark racial divides in California in regards to college education should give us pause, as (controversial or not) the college premium exists, and has a great deal of salience for any individual’s earning potential and access to socioeconomic mobility.
America is still an experiment. If you look, there are actually very few historical examples of truly multiracial, pluralistic societies that don’t have some sort of rigid inequities or segregation. Ours works imperfectly, but it does work– and, I would argue, part of the reason why it has worked is because of a period of cross-ideological agreement that we needed to make great efforts to heal our racial divides. Now, we have walked back on that commitment to a breathtaking degree, and at a time when we have not come close to removing the Hispanic and black achievement gaps, in education or in income. (It is truly baffling that some people continue to insist that we are entirely or largely “past race”, given the continued demographic realities in this country concerning who is financially secure, who is educated, who owns a home, who is incarcerated….)
I am afraid for my country. This country has a permanent black underclass; Hispanic economic mobility is not much better. Decades of affirmative action have done little to fix that. Now, we appear ready to abandon those attempts to level the playing field entirely. Of course, principles and ideals are important. But my question is open, and I apply it to the most thoughtful opponents of affirmative action and the most rabid and unthinking alike: what are the effects, for our country, of a permanent racial achievement divide? And can we reasonably expect to maintain a peaceful and just society with such a gap between the races?
And how long can we continue to pretend that these questions aren’t staring us in the face, or that they don’t matter?