The View from Room B: College, Diversity, and the End of Affirmative Action

Imagine a cocktail party. You arrive to find two rooms full of people. One room, call it Room A, is full of white, heterosexual people in a narrow age range, all similarly dressed for a cocktail party and all speaking English. The second room, Room B, is populated with a mix of whites (say, 30%), Blacks (20%), Latins, Asians, and a smattering of Middle Easterners. There are some teens in there, a few people apparently in their 70s or 80s, and a couple of same-sex couples. The dress in Room B ranges from grunge to festively ethnic to formal, and though most are speaking English, you can hear a subcurrent of other languages, some unidentifiable.

The drinks are the same in Room A and Room B.  Which room do you want to enter?

If you’re like me (white, male, older, and a bit shy), you might be drawn toward Room A for its familiarity and “safety.” You’re more likely to fit in there, and no one in there is likely to say anything surprising, much less unsettling. You might even be the life of the party in Room A.

Room B looks more…challenging. If you’re like me, you might feel more uncomfortable there, worried that you won’t be accepted, or that your qualities won’t be recognized. You might not know the language of the first person you bump into. You might not be able to guess their background. Some people in Room B might behave differently than you’re accustomed to, not know the same rules that you were raised by. Some are very young, and not fully socialized; some are very old, and no longer care to be socialized.

But the part of me that still wants to learn, the part that’s curious about the world and what makes it tick, the part that’s open to change and growth – which is to say, what I consider the better part of me – is drawn toward Room B.  I know what I’ll get in Room A, but I have no idea what Room B holds for me. And there are only so many cocktail parties in life.

I’d pick Room B. At least, I hope I would. And I think that a majority of my fellow adult citizens would too.

The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments in cases brought against two universities, challenging their race-conscious admissions practices as violating Title VII and the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. It’s widely expected that the current Court, seeded with Trump appointees, will undermine or reverse the 2003 ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Court held that the goal of having a diverse student body justified colleges’ use of race as a factor in admissions. It’s the current Court majority’s next step in its apparent mission of turning back the cultural clock to the 1950s.

In the course of the oral arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas, a Black man married to a white woman, challenged the lawyers for the universities, saying “I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means.”

Justice Thomas, it means Room B. It means something like the racial, ethnic, age, and gender composition of the very court you sit on, without which you wouldn’t be sitting on it.

I’m an alumnus of Denison University, a small liberal arts college in the heart of Ohio. When I attended there in the early 1970s, its student body was overwhelmingly white and economically privileged. By the time we were seniors, I – a white kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh – and one of the mere dozen or so Black students on campus at the time were appointed co-head residents of one of the men’s dorms. He was the first Black person I’d ever gotten to know, not to mention live with, and had he not been a member of my class, my personal history of de facto segregation from other races and ethnicities would have continued for several more years.

Like many colleges, Denison spent the next several decades trying to turn its campus into something more like Room B, with the result that today around 20% of its student body are people of color, 15% are from other countries, roughly 60% are from lower- and middle-income families, and only 40% fall into the upper-income category that I and the vast majority of my classmates inhabited when we were admitted to the school back in those ancient times.

Most Americans would, I believe, call this “progress” rather than “race discrimination.” The widest possible distribution of a scarce resource would seem the essence of enlightened humanitarianism in a democratic society. But where conservative factions once resisted the societal consequences of Brown v. Board of Education, they now gleefully seize upon it as having established that the 14th Amendment requires that we be a “color-blind” nation, and not one engaged in sorting people by race. Perhaps, they say, affirmative action was necessary for a while, but it can’t be justified indefinitely, we’ve proved it doesn’t really work, and it’s time for it to be consigned to the ash heap of necessary evils that turned out to be more evil than necessary.

Affirmative action in college admissions – and in other people-sorting processes, like employment– has always been at war with the comforting fiction of equality of opportunity that we Americans carry around in our heads. Opportunity can never be equal to all if some are advantaged on the basis of a factor that has nothing to do with the goal. The disadvantaged – or in this case, the un-advantaged Asians and whites – are right to object, and their complaint is no less constitutionally plausible than that of Blacks and Jews of generations gone by.

But the attack on affirmative action begs the question: how should we be sorting people for access to a limited resource like higher education?

The principle undergirding affirmative action has always been one of gestural reparation – essentially, compensating the wronged in a partial, often fruitless way for what is actually irremediable: a century of legal enslavement of Blacks in this country. Part of the backlash against affirmative action is rooted in white (and Asian, and Latino) resentment at being blamed and penalized today for this historical wrong. This is why the phrases “systemic racism” and “critical race theory” grate on the ears of the innocent white male who’s raised his kids to respect people of all races and even has a few Black colleagues at the office.

But America doesn’t have to be racist today for the consequences of past racism to persist generation after generation, and to feed new waves of subconscious bias. Once we accept that those consequences persist, the only question should be how to mitigate them. Deliberately – “affirmatively” – increasing minority participation in higher education has long been accepted by the Supreme Court, and by the American people, as one way to try to do so.

Many beneficiaries of affirmative action – Clarence Thomas included – have loudly claimed that selectively lowering admission standards does no favors to those briefly advantaged by them. It’s merely, in the unctuous phrase of one of George Bush’s ghostwriters, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Moreover, the operative assumption on the part of most admissions departments that diversity on a college campus benefits not only the minorities who are thus included, but the non-minority students who are thus allowed or compelled to associate with those minorities, can be seen as deeply condescending at best and exploitative at worst. Colleges might become a simulacrum of the racially and economically inclusive world we wish for, but at the cost of reducing some students to their performative value, temporary guests in the Room B cocktail party that’s being hosted by folks in Room A.

Some argue that there is no fully ethical way to discriminate among thousands of applicants to determine which few hundred will be admitted to a selective school, and that a lottery among applicants – currently used by some charter and magnet high schools – is the least invidious approach. The obvious rejoinder, apart from the failure of lotteries to increase minority admissions in some cases, is that admission by chance is inefficient; it risks “wasting” the valuable resource of higher education on some who will be unable to make the best use of it.

Others point out that, in their knee-jerk, formulaic emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity, admissions departments rely on often dubious self-identifications and ignore any number of other dimensions of diversity – age, for one obvious example, or religious or political ideology, or geographic or economic extraction.

Deprived of traditional affirmative action, some colleges will be inclined to fall back on standardized testing and grade-based quotas – such as some state schools’ policy of admitting the entire top 10% of students in local high schools. But this raises the thorny issue of what one is testing for and grading, and how, and whether these things can be done in a way that doesn’t inevitably implement racial or cultural bias.

At some point we need to accept that higher education is itself an artifact of the surrounding culture, with all its baked-in biases. As a crudely practical matter, a college education is an extended tribal membership ritual, and the tribe being auditioned for is, by definition, the society of people who have been similarly educated. The secular education offered by the typical college is both programmatic (a pre-conceived body of knowledge is taught) and standards-based (you’ll be judged by how well you’ve learned it). There are many other premises essential to higher education, but without these two, you have something other than a college, and something short of a reason to go there.

Where there is no agreement about standards – both that they are necessary and what they should measure — there is really no space for education to happen. This is even more obviously true of purely “vocational” training (and what education isn’t that?) than it is of the more ethereal subjects on offer at a liberal arts college. The rub is that standards are inherently hierarchical, judgmental, and meritocratic, and not everyone can excel in a social system (like a college, or a manufacturing company, or an advertising firm, hospital, or military corps) that operates on those principles.

For decades, affirmative action has allowed inherently elitist, meritocratic colleges and universities to selectively suspend pure meritocracy and pass as quasi-philanthropic vehicles of social leveling under the banner of diversity. The great irony is that, once forced by the Supreme Court to revert to their true nature as economic and intellectual sorting machines – winnowers rather than aggregators – they will surely become more boring, like our Room A, but they may also become more fragile and isolated, more likely to be dismissed as the elitist enclaves that the right so often accuses them of being.

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