The Breakfast Table

Affirmative Action vs. Preferences

Dear Brent–

I guess this is it–our last exchange. In a way, I feel as if the conversation is only just getting started. Though we turn out to agree about a surprising number of things, we also disagree–in ways that I’m not sure we’ve really gotten to.

Take preferences, for example. I don’t think that’s just a trick of the tongue. There’s a real difference between affirmative action as it was initially defined (an effort to expand the recruitment pool and make sure that there is no discrimination in the hiring process) and what is generally practiced today: flagrantly color-coded double standards. I believe college admissions offices and corporate personnel departments do literally prefer to admit and hire people of color for certain slots. In fact, it’s stronger than “prefer”–they make sure they do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have 200-point gaps in average black and white SAT scores at many colleges. And here, once again, I go back to the question of means and ends. Of course, as you say, “some racial mixture is socially desirable.” I couldn’t be more eager to see a thoroughly diverse student population and an integrated workforce, from top to bottom. But I don’t think preferences are the right way to get there. And I believe it’s very helpful to have terms to distinguish the tools that you find useful from the ones you feel are counterproductive or downright pernicious.

(But by the way, I thought from one of your earlier messages that you too were ambivalent about preferences?)

Be that as it may, we did–I thought–agree on the much more important, underlying point: that, like them or not in the short term, preferences must eventually be replaced by better education for minorities. My problem here: I’m not sure it’s a simple as you think. I agree it’s unclear what to do about bad parenting. But I think that what happens at home in the years before school is a critical part of the problem. (So, increasingly, by the way, do a number of “liberal” social policy experts. Read Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips’ important book The Black-White Test Score Gap.) I also agree about no-holds-barred vouchers, but that too is only a beginning. (Somebody still has to find ways to reach and interest and discipline the least prepared, least motivated students.) As for federal subsidies … alas, it turns out, the schools that spend the most money don’t necessarily do the best job–often far from it. I only wish the remedy were so obvious–because if it were, I think the nation would muster the political will. Unlike you, I don’t believe that most Americans feel that schooling is wasted on black and brown children. Most people are mostly focused on getting an education for their kids, but if they think about it, they understand that the country needs to make the most of all its talent–and I don’t think they think that much about color.

Maybe this is what it comes down to: Even when you and I agree, my take tends to be earnest and yours–by comparison, anyway–instinctively skeptical. I see a shift in the national mood; you see tactical maneuvering. I see candidates–some, anyway–really trying to stake out new middle ground; you see tacking and opportunistic positioning. Maybe my labels are unfair: Maybe I’m just credulous and you’re more worldly-wise. But, whatever it is, there is some fundamental difference here that I feel has been dogging us even when we seem to see eye-to-eye.

So, Brent, that’s my stab at closure. Now you have the last word. It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we can do lunch someday?

All best,