The Problem with Affirmative Action After Grutter: Some Reflections on Fisher v. University of Texas
It’s official: the Supreme Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin this term. The Court will determine the constitutionality of the university’s use of race in its undergraduate admissions decisions. Because Justice Kagan has recused herself, supporters of affirmative action must hope (pray!) for a 4-4 split – with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kennedy on one side and Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas on the other.
But, what’s the likelihood that Justice Kennedy will swing to the left? After all, he dissented in Grutter. Part of his discontent in 2003 concerned Michigan Law’s notion of a “critical mass.” Michigan Law argued, and the majority accepted, that a “critical mass” of minority students would promote “cross-racial understanding,” undermine racial stereotypes, prepare students for the “multicultural workforce” that exists outside the law school’s doors, and prevent minority students from having to be “spokespersons for their race.” Essentially, admitting less than a “critical mass” of minority students would be an exercise in futility; however, admitting a “critical mass” of them would further the compelling state interest in securing the educational benefits of having a diverse student body. But, Kennedy protested that he was not fooled by the concept of “critical mass.” To him, “critical mass” walked like a quota and quacked like a quota. “Aha!,” Kennedy exclaimed in dissent. “It’s a quota!” And quotas are, of course, constitutionally repugnant.
So, it may be a bit ominous for those who want to see the University of Texas’ affirmative action program survive review that the university specifically and explicitly argues that it uses race in its admissions decisions in order to ensure that its student body contains a “critical mass” of racial minorities. As Justice Blackmun said in another context: “The signs are evident and ominous, and a chill wind blows.”
Notably, Justice Kennedy did not have a problem with the Grutter majority’s holding that student body diversity was a compelling governmental interest. He noted in his dissent that he found “no constitutional objection to the goal of considering race as one modest factor among many others to achieve diversity”; his disquietude was solely with the way that Michigan Law pursued this interest. Thus, if Texas’ program is struck down this term, it will not be because a majority has found that achieving student body diversity is no longer a compelling governmental interest.
Yet, this holding is, for me, the most disturbing part of Grutter. I get it: we have to argue in the language of “diversity” in order to justify affirmative action programs because the jurisprudence will not allow us to argue successfully in the language of “remedying past societal discrimination.” But, while the end is the same (more racial minorities gain access to schools that otherwise would be inaccessible), the means to the end are troubling. Why is “diversity” more attractive as a compelling interest than “remedying past societal discrimination”? The answer may be that those who are imagined to benefit from programs designed to “remedy past societal discrimination” are only the minority groups that were victims of discrimination; however, those who are imagined to benefit from programs designed to increase diversity include nonminorities. To be clear: the programs are the same. But, when “diversity” is the justification for the program, it allows us to imagine that even White people benefit. Nonwhite people and White people acquire cross-racial understanding. Nonwhite people and White people are disabused of racial stereotypes. Nonwhite people and White people are prepared to enter a multicultural workforce. There are no losers with diversity! It’s a win-win!
And I’m pretty sure that individuals of all racial ascriptions and identifications benefit from racially diverse environments. However, my issue is that when the interest was framed in terms that focused only on the benefit that minorities would receive from affirmative action – when it was articulated in the language of “remedying past societal discrimination” – a majority of the Court refused to find that this interest was compelling. Rectifying the enduring effects of the mistreatment, the disenfranchisement, the denial of citizenship, the abuse… That’s definitely legitimate. It may even be important. But, it’s not compelling. Diversity, on the other hand? That’s the stuff that the Fourteenth Amendment can sink its teeth into!
At present, efforts to repair the damage caused by this country’s history of racism and exclusion can only be justified by not making reference to this country’s history of racism and exclusion. There’s something unsettling about that. There’s also something unsettling about the work that the acceptance of the diversity argument, coupled with the rejection of the remediation argument, does to deny that the effects of past societal discrimination even exist. Diversity screams, “Racism is dead!” But, could it be that the premature celebration of racism’s demise is the very sign that demonstrates that racism is alive and well? That is: nonwhite people – Black people, specifically – are poorer, sicker, more frequently incarcerated, die earlier, more likely to die violent deaths, etc., than their White counterparts. If these disparities are not the effects of past societal discrimination – if these disparities are not the effects of institutional mechanisms – then what explains them? The focus shifts to individuals and their pathological choices, behaviors, lifestyles, cultures, instincts, etc. And racism is just a stone’s throw away.