SHORT TAKES


November 19, 2012

The Sixth Circuit Undermines Affirmative Action

On November 6 the voters of Oklahoma, following in the footsteps of voters in California (1996), Washington (1998), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), and Arizona (2010), passed  a constitutional amendment that prohibits the state from offering "preferred treatment" or engaging in discrimination based on race, color, gender, or ethnicity. On November 15 eight of the fifteen judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held, over vigorous dissents, that the nearly identical Michigan amendment requiring the state to treat all its residents without regard to their race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Really.

As Roger Clegg just noted, this decision will almost certainly be reviewed by the Supreme Court, not primarily because it is unusually stupid but because it conflicts with both old and recent decisions of even the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit. Ironically, this decision is so bad that it may actually do some good before the Court can review it. In flatly rejecting the same argument made in the Michigan case (by the same lawyer) against California's Prop. 209, a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled in April that "Grutter upheld as permissible certain race-based affirmative action programs. It did not hold that such programs are constitutionally required." In holding that states are effectively prohibited from deciding that race-based preferences are impermissible, the Sixth Circuit's overreaching Egregious Eight may have inadvertently driven a stake through the heart of affirmative action. Their extreme decision may persuade Justice Kennedy and hence a conservative majority to hold in the upcoming Fisher decision that Grutter must be gutted, not tweaked, that the only "way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," as Chief Justice Roberts famously said in Parents Involved, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Noting the great gulf separating the views on racial preference held by the nation's opinion leaders and elites, including leaders and faculty of both public and private universities, Richard Kahlenberg recently quoted Richard Sander's and Stuart Taylor Jr.'s observation in their terrific new book, Mismatch, "We can think of no other public issue in which the leadership class displays such cohesion in the face of a largely opposite view among Americans in general."

In large part that's because most Americans continue to define discrimination as distributing benefits or burdens based on race while opinion leaders in editorial and university offices, Hollywood and Madison Avenue, board rooms, and nearly all elected and appointed Democrats have abandoned that traditional definition and instead regard discrimination as anything that interferes with promoting "diversity," which in practice means discriminating against white and Asians in order to admit or hire more blacks and Hispanics. Thus the Sixth Circuit thought it unfair that the citizens of Michigan prohibited "race-conscious" admissions, i.e., preferential treatment based on race, while allowing "a legacy-conscious admissions policy." Whatever the merits or wisdom of legacy preference, it cannot be said that its intent or effect is to discriminate against minorities. Indeed, for over a generation now minorities have been admitted to selective institutions in greater numbers than if they had been held to the same standards as whites and Asians, and thus it is quite likely that legacy preferences on balance now actually benefit minorities.

Their "legacy conscious admissions" comparison reveals that the Sixth Circuit based its decision on the assumption that "race-conscious" admissions have the intent and effect of benefitting minorities. The massive amount of evidence presented in the "mismatch" scholarship of Sander, Taylor, and now many others, however, has demonstrated that in fact "race conscious" admissions actually does serious and lasting damage to its ostensible "beneficiaries."

I say "ostensible" and put "beneficiaries" in quotes because for anyone who credits the mantra-like justifications for "race conscious" admissions offered by its proponents, it's clear that lowering the bar for blacks and Hispanics is not intended as a benefit to them -- after all, they would receive whatever benefits "diversity" offers at less selective institutions -- but to the whites and Asians whose education is said to require being exposed to them.

In any event, the noxious belief of the Sixth Circuit and all supporters of racial preference that discrimination against some groups should be legal if it benefits other groups reveals how thoroughly American liberalism has abandoned the civil rights ideal that was its heart and soul from the1830s through the 1960s.

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