The Affirmative Action Wars, Part 37

The backlash against William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River, a liberal defense of affirmative action, has kicked into gear, and much of it won’t surprise you. There’s the attacker: Abigail Thernstrom, co-author (with her husband Stephan) of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and one of the loudest opponents of affirmative action around. There’s the venue: the Wall Street Journal editorial page. There’s the old juggle-with-numbers. Is a 75 percent graduation rate for blacks at top colleges proof of the success of race-sensitive admissions or of its failure? Proof of success, according to Bowen and Bok; proof of failure, according to Thernstrom. The white graduation rate is 86 percent, so she reconfigures the stats to show that blacks have a dropout rate that’s 78 percent higher for blacks than for whites.

But Thernstom’s main argument is original. She says an education at an elite college doesn’t matter as much as everyone says it does, so elite colleges shouldn’t work so hard to admit more blacks. Bowen and Bok claim we need affirmative action from top schools because that’s what created the black middle class in the first place? Not so fast! says Thernstrom: “Where are their control groups, demonstrating in some rigorous fashion that the equally academically strong, ambitious and discipline black student who attends the University of South Carolina instead of Oberlin does less well in life?” Lacking hard data, Thernstrom supplies anecdotal evidence: a list of blacks who did well in life even though they didn’t go to Princeton or Penn. It includes Cynthia Tucker, editorial writer at the Atlanta Constitution, who went to Auburn University; Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, who went to Ohio; Brent Staples of the New York Times, who went to Widener, Vernon Jordan, who went to Depauw; and so on.

Leaving aside the little hooks that ripple this flowing counternarrative of success, like the fact that Staples went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, Culturebox is charmed by a certain self-inverting quality to Thernstrom’s argument. If like her we believe in strict formal equality in all things (rather than remedies to past discrimination), and black people don’t need fancy schools to do well in life, why should we think white people need them either? Think of the current master of the universe, Disney chief Michael Eisner, who graduated from Denison, a university in Granville, Ohio. Or Steven Spielberg, who never graduated at all. But if white people don’t need degrees from tony colleges to succeed, why do Thernstrom and her cohorts care so much about these schools’ efforts to level the playing field? The better strategy would be to cede it altogether, leaving blacks to enjoy their Pyrric victory. More fools they, that they believe in the power of a Harvard education!

Thernstrom sent her daughter, Melanie Thernstrom, to Harvard, so we know she doesn’t accept the unintended consequences of her own argument. But that doesn’t undermine her case entirely. Thernstrom is translating for broad consumption a debate raging among economists. It is widely known that there is a huge economic return on higher education in general. The question is: Is there a bigger one on an education at an elite school? In other words, does it matter where you went to college or that you went to college?

In purely economic terms, it turns out, it matters only that you went to college. But pure economics doesn’t explain why people like Thernstrom care so much about getting their kids into Harvard. The answer is that a Harvard education does more than get your child into the middle-class, or even the upper-middle class. It plugs your child directly into a network of people who make up what used to be called the Establishment–which is exactly where Thernstrom would want her daughter to be.

Judith Shulevitz