Affirmative Inaction: Diversity on the Cheap
Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court building. Rob Crandall /

Affirmative Inaction: Diversity on the Cheap

Mandating outcomes without addressing class is equality on the cheap, writes Vance Opperman.

TO: Dr. Angel B. Pérez
CEO, National Association for College Admission Counseling
1050 N. Highland St.
Suite 400
Arlington, VA 22201

Dear Dr. Peréz:

The job of your members has just become more complicated. The U.S. Supreme Court in the Fair Admissions case, reversing more than four decades of precedent, has declared the use of race as a factor in college admission at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina as unconstitutional. As columnist David French recently wrote, Harvard had to defend “dreadful facts.” The evidence is overwhelming that Harvard actively discriminated against Asian-American applicants, a fact disputed during oral argument. Dreadful facts sometimes lead to dreadful Supreme Court opinions. This is one of those.

Chief Justice John Roberts found “eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.But wait a minute. Apparently, the due process clause has exceptions. Military academies like West Point are expressly exempt and are free to exercise racial discrimination. The court provided no standard by which to measure the necessary degree of military preparedness sufficient to justify racial discrimination. But that’s not the only dreadful aspect of this opinion.

The second exception found by the court is—let’s call it the John Wayne exception—when college administrators take into effect applicants who overcome socioeconomic barriers; call it “true grit.” Again, the court offered no guidance as to the degree or kind of socioeconomic factors the overcoming of which would justify racial discrimination.

College admission officers will now have to factor in their own analysis of the true grit quotient, and military preparedness factors into military academy admission decisions. Apparently, admission officers are perfectly free to continue to grant admission preference to “legacy” applicants—currently over 30% of the Harvard freshman class. Legacy admission preferences are racially discriminatory in retrospect. Elite colleges have argued that legacy preferences are necessary to increase alumni donations and build endowments. The Harvard endowment presently is more than $50 billion.

This is affirmative action on the cheap. The right wing has pointed to the use of race as an admission factor as a way to increase white resentment. Today the Republican party routinely beats Democrats by about 2-to-1 among white people without a college degree—politically underscoring the resentment fostered by lack of attention to class equality. Mandating outcomes without addressing class is equality on the cheap. By the same token, progressives can use their “Black face” test; pointing to (a few) Black faces in elite graduating classes, and even the Oval Office(!) as evidence of social inclusion. But this doesn’t cost much, and it doesn’t affect the endowments or legacies of elite colleges.

Racial discrimination and our country’s shameful past of slavery can be overcome. Let us start with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; I have a dream where people will “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Note jobs first, then freedom. At Harvard, presently 71% of Black and Hispanic students come from the socioeconomic top fifth of Black and Hispanic students nationally. According to a study by Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty, both Harvard and UNC have about 15 times as many wealthy as poor students on campus. Class, not race, is the barrier.

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There is a great American example, a laboratory if you will, of how we could achieve racial inclusion. In My American Journey, the late Gen. Colin Powell outlines how he overcame the lack of Black officers to lead an increasingly multiracial army. He discovered that the lack of Black officers was due to very few non-white applicants gaining admission to officer candidate school because they lacked sufficient reading and math skills. So he ordered special classrooms and dormitories be set aside and reading and math skills be taught. The number of Black officers in officer candidate school, and the number of Black officers, rose dramatically.

America, are you listening? We can spend the time and money to greatly increase the quality of our pre-K–12 education institutions, invest more in community colleges, and limit legacy preferences.

The answer to building an America that lives up to its promise—a democracy open to all—can be at hand. It will not be achieved by mandated outcomes on the cheap. We are smarter and better than that. We can have a dream.


Vance Opperman signature

Vance K. Opperman
For real equality