An End to Leveling Down
Many well-intentioned people defend the affirmative action regime despite its visible consequences.
The affirmative action cases pending before the Supreme Court will undoubtedly produce an uproar—before and after the court’s decision—comparable to that accompanying the Dobbs abortion case. The Dobbs decision proclaimed an end to “situation ethics” as a principle of constitutional law; the Students for Fair Admissions cases may do the same for “leveling down” as such a principle.
The defenders of the affirmative action regime, to be sure, opportunistically invoke claims for institutional autonomy. These claims are illusory, given the pressures from federal civil rights agencies from above and those of a frequently violent nature from militant students and faculty, the beneficiaries of present policies, from below.
Outrage will be expressed at the disruption of so-called “settled law,” in this case unprincipled, time-limited law usually thought to be a legislative, not judicial, function. On the constitutional issue under consideration, it is forgotten that Thurgood Marshall in his Brown argument proclaimed that he saw nothing wrong with separation on academic grounds between talented and less talented students. While on the statutory issue, it is equally forgotten that Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Senate manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, decried quota systems.
The pending cases implicate not merely college admissions offices but a massive apparatus at all levels of education. This regime challenges selective admissions, subject matter and intelligence testing, ability tracking, and effective school discipline not only of members of underperforming groups but of all students. The “disparate impact” doctrines also impugn faculty appointments and promote grade inflation and attacks on academic tenure.
The Brown decision, for good reason, had few serious critics. It abolished in the South an impermeable caste system, the antithesis of an open society. Its application, however, disregarded cultural as well as racial differences. It is true that a black population 10 percent literate in 1865 enjoyed nearly universal literacy by 1954, as Justice Robert Jackson pointed out; it was once illegal in some states to teach a slave to read. However, as University of Chicago President Edward Levi cautioned in 1968, if “universities are to become a kind of mirror image of the political order, then we will have to develop new institutions weak enough to be free, but in which ideas can be developed which are strong enough to change the world.”
Martin Luther King warned in the last chapter of his Stride Toward Freedom in 1958:
In an effort to advance freedom in America, Asia and Africa we must not try to leap from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. We must seek democracy and not the substitution of one tyranny for another...We must not let the fact that we are the victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives. Through community agencies and religious institutions, Negro leaders must develop a positive program through which Negro youth can become adjusted to urban lives and improve their general level of behavior.
Nonetheless, George Kennan was pilloried in 1968 for suggesting in his Democracy and the Student Left that black Americans be viewed as subject as well as object. Instead, under the inferior leadership that followed King and Thurgood Marshall, a gospel of self-pity propagated in no other American ethnic group has prevailed among black leaders. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, despite their talents as orators, usually appear as confidence men and operators of protection rackets, prone, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, to “self-parody.”
Despite occasional expressions of concern about the values and culture dominant among America’s black youth, the Obama administration did nothing to correct this syndrome. It instead propagated “disparate impact” doctrine, challenged school discipline regimes, failed to promote vocational education or a revived Civilian Conservation Corps, and left race relations worse than it found them.
The cost to Americans, and not just to black Americans, of the misdirection of the Civil Rights revolution has been heavy: a grade-inflation regime in which college students have been discovered to study ten hours a week less than their counterparts in earlier generations, and in which free discussion of social and political issues has given way to a climate of fear on campuses.
Those who prate of “diversity” really desire uniformity. The only diversity sought is racial diversity; diversity’s supposed educational benefits would be more enhanced by constructing student bodies on the principle of Noah’s Ark rather than proportional representation: two Ascension Islanders, two Pitcairn Islanders, etc. Demands for proportional representation of all Americans because of its supposed educational benefits have fallen short, at least thus far, of seeking suitable percentages of methamphetamine addicts, convicted felons, and the clinically insane.
In consequence, our emerging political leaders all share defective educations. They bear no resemblance to the “learned presidents” of the Progressive Era: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. The exaltation of equality of result threatens to produce a war of all against all, as equally or more numerous minority groups such as Hispanic and Asian Americans enter the battle for preferences.
The new egalitarian ideals, even if realized, threaten to produce a society eloquently foreseen by the British author John Buchan in 1940:
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[M]ankind as amply provided for as the inmates of a well-managed orphanage...everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life. Some kind of mechanical philosophy of politics would have triumphed, and everyone would have his neat little part in the state machine. It would be a feverish bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of a riotous life, there would be death at the bottom...A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality.
Many well-intentioned people defend the affirmative action regime despite its visible consequences. Its repudiation, like the repudiation of “abortion on demand” in Dobbs, will produce state, local, and private efforts at evasion, but these will at least be diverse and pluralistic.
In the wake of the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune and the sentimentalist reactions it caused, the most far-seeing prophet of twentieth-century totalitarianism, Jacob Burckhardt, wrote: “there are everywhere good, splendid liberal people who do not quite know the boundaries of right and wrong and where the duty of resistance and defense begins. It is these men who open the doors and level the paths for the terrible masses everywhere.”