The New Yorker has an interview with William G. Bowen, the President of Princeton when Sonia Sotomayor joined as a freshman and an expert on affirmative action. His comments, I think, have some special resonance with our own Afffirmative-Action style debates at Brandeis and I think people would be well served to read the interview.
What would you say is the one misconception that you keep on encountering when you look at the current debate over affirmative action?
One lesson that I have derived from participating in this debate, for heaven knows how many years, is the simple-minded assumption that you either deserve to be there or you don’t. There isn’t just one index of merit, and the point of admissions is not to bestow gold stars on people who’ve done well before, to predict the future. It’s to choose students to invest in who are going to make the university better and are going to make society better. Those are bets on the future.
In the introduction to the paperback of “The Shape of the River,” Glenn Loury wrote that the debate over affirmative action revolves around two competing claims: the procedure-based morality of “color neutrality” and the outcome-oriented morality of racial justice.
The way many Americans learn about civil rights—the way I learned about Rosa Parks in second grade—very much focusses on color blindness. The idea of racial justice often coexists uneasily with that basic narrative. In a recent Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative-action programs for some school districts, John Roberts reflected the opinion of many conservatives when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What’s your response to that?
You might find interesting the last speech that Lyndon Johnson ever gave, right before he died. I won’t get the quotation exactly right, but it’s worth getting right, because it’s a great quotation.
He said, Yes, today blacks and whites do stand more or less on a level playing field, but they’re not in the same place. Whites see the world from the mountain place, blacks see the world from the hollow of history. It’s a great phrase: “from the hollow of history.”
It affects the way the world works today. You can’t just be ahistorical and forget all of that, and think that you’re going to get the best outcomes. I think the real answer to the quote that you gave me from Roberts is, “Yes, the way to end discrimination is to not discriminate, that’s true, but it just doesn’t go far enough.”
I think the Sandra Day O’Connor opinion in the Michigan Supreme Court cases was really extraordinarily powerful and really broke new ground. It was very different from the Powell opinion in the earlier Bakke case, because she pointed out that for the country to succeed, to achieve all it wants to achieve, you need to have—it is desirable to have—people of a variety of backgrounds, appearances, and persuasions in visible roles.
I think that’s right, and that’s one of the reasons the army is a great example. You don’t want all white commanders and all black soldiers. That’s really not a good idea!
One of the good outcomes of the O’Connor decision was the rejection of quotas and just giving points because you were black or whatever. The University of Michigan was told that, at the undergraduate level, you can’t do that. That’s wrong. I agree! That is wrong because it fails to capture what the whole portfolio of the person looks like.
Now did this require Michigan to spend more money on admissions? Absolutely, it required them to spend more money on admissions! You couldn’t look at applications in such a simple way, and I think that’s all to the good.
Can that be overdone? Of course. Anything can be overdone, but it is worth investing resources in allowing yourself, your system, to make thoughtful judgments. You need to have the right metrics when you judge outcomes. One of the aspects of our current research is that we think much more emphasis needs to be put on graduation rates, not just access. Getting through, finishing—and finishing well.