Friday, February 24, 2012

Conservatives Make a Liberal Argument Against Affirmative Action

I was perplexed by a question after hearing this last week's Slate Political Gabfest.

If you haven't heard, the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case which will challenge affirmative action in college admissions. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is a case in which a white student is saying she was unfairly denied admission because she was white. I won't get into my disdain for the "Woe is me, I'm a white person in America" ridiculousness, but there's a really interesting double standard that someone (someone much smarter and more informed than I am) should explore.

The University of Texas at Austin has an admissions policy that begins by admitting the top ten percenters from each high school in Texas. Because of the segregation in schools caused by geographic segregation, this produces some diversity on its own. Then the university takes economics into account, and that will produce some ethnic diversity, too. Ultimately, they have some wiggle room allowed by the Supreme Court's decision on Michigan Law School's admissions policy from a few years ago (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003). It's this last part that the Supreme Court is revisiting, and which it will probably change, especially since Justice Kagan has had to recuse herself. The young woman filing the case claims that she would have been accepted if not for this last bit of racial preference in admissions.

Regardless of where you stand on admissions (for the record, I'm in favor of some racial preference to encourage diversity, because I see racial diversity, like economic diversity, as a valuable part of an education), this argument will hinge on the notion that the system was unfair to this young woman and the government should fix it. I have no problem with that kind of argument. Why? Because I'm a liberal. I believe that, when there is injustice in our society and the government creates, enables, or has the power to correct that injustice, it should. I don't believe the government can create perfect equality of outcomes or solve all social ills. That's a straw man some of my conservative friends have tried to pin to all liberals, as though being a liberal is the same thing as being a Maoist or Soviet, and that's inaccurate and unfair. However, when the government can make a system, especially a system of its own, more fair, it should do so.

My conservative friends do not believe this. They tell me that they believe in personal responsibility. They tell me they believe equality will best be produced by the free market. They detest systems like Affirmative Action because they see it as government intrusion.

Except in this case, the remedy the complainant is proposing is that government should step in (when conservatives disagree with this form of government intrusion they call this "judicial overreach") and make this system more fair. Personal responsibility, it seems to me, would dictate that Abigail Fisher could have earned her way into the University of Texas at Austen by working her way into the top ten percent of her class. Problem solved. Or she could take advantage of the free market and go to school somewhere else, and if enough disgruntled white students did this and the school took too much of a financial hit, they would adjust their admissions policy. Problem solved. But Ms. Fisher is blaming the system and trying to change it. She wants it to conform to the ideals presented by the conservative right, but the mechanism she's employing theoretically belong to the left.

Of course, it doesn't belong to the left. Conservatives are just as willing to go to court as liberals, just as willing to try to sway government to enforce their vision of a more just America. I have no problem with that. What bothers me is that, when people advocates for a more just tax policy, something that is more firmly in the sphere of government than a public university's admissions policy, they are dismissed as dirty hippies who need to get a job and stop expecting the government to solve their problems.

The practical consequence of this double standard is that when poor people and minorities, or even middle class whites struggling against a rigged economic system, go to the government for a redress of a grievance, they are dismissed by conservatives, but when a white person does the exact same thing at the expense of a poorer minority applicant to the same university, that's peachy, and yet the conservatives bristle at being called plutocrats or racists.

Pay close attention to the way this issue gets reported by the conservative media, and to the way Republican candidates comment on it when it gets a bit more attention. If you hear a noticeable absence of condemnation of Abigail Fisher as a communist, a welfare queen, a nanny-state liberal, or any of the other slurs hurled at those participating in Occupy Wall Street, ask yourself, What should we call people who only compromise their principles when it benefits white people?