The Breakfast Table

The Case for Affirmative Action


You are one astute editorialist, even if you’re all wet about affirmative action. At least I think you’re waterlogged, from the drift of your questions. You ask, in essence, can’t some minorities go to less competitive state colleges and still get a good education? This is the California model whereby fewer minorities attend, say, UC Berkeley. But go have a beautiful experience at UC Riverside!

Over time, this diminishes the quality of education and limits opportunity for different groups of people. That can’t be good.

Not to sound too preachy–uh-oh, here I go–but research shows that 20 years after students graduate from schools with affirmative action, all students–white and black–feel enriched by the experience. Don’t blame me. Blame William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard. They’re no slouches. In their book The Shape of the River , they say blacks admitted to 28 selective colleges and universities arrive with lower grades and test scores than whites. During college, they get lower grades and graduate at lower rates. The University of Washington, I suspect, fits this pattern. But after graduation, blacks earn advanced degrees at rates similar to white classmates. They’re more likely than whites to get professional degrees in law, medicine, and business, more likely to get involved in community activities. Tirade finished. I concede that enrollments are up for Asian next year at UW but down for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

Since you asked, Washington Sen. Patty Murray was underwhelming and unimpressive much of her first term. Whenever she was asked a tough question, she got this eerie dumbfounded look on her face. She was once described as one of the top 10 dimmest bulbs in the Senate. That’s saying something.

But Murray was never lazy. Late in her term, her hard work started to pay off. A former preschool teacher and school-board member, she worked on education long before it was chic. And she benefited enormously from good timing. About a week before the election, Republicans scrambled to find something to offer on education. Our carpe diem president seized her bill to hire thousands of new teachers.

She is also a pro-business Democrat. That didn’t hurt with campaign donations, especially against Linda Smith, who opposed free trade legislation.

I assume you caught that front-page New York Times story about the new, improved Internal Revenue Service. Thanks to some roughing up by Congress, including a possible ration of immoderate, unreasonable libertarians, the IRS is being nicer to taxpayers.

Does that make you feel better, even if scofflaws go free?

With this Slate gig and everything, I am busier than usual. I half expect one of those cheery tax collectors to pick up my dry cleaning instead of taking me to the cleaners.

Ciao till tomorrow,