That old saying “Watch out, you may get what you ask for” is beginning to haunt those of us who have long hoped for an end to racial preferences. The vast and subtle apparatus of preferential policies called affirmative action still has a vigorous life in American institutions and workplaces. Even in places such as California, where group preferences have been outlawed in state institutions, they manage to have an active underground life. Yet now they also have a foredoomed quality about them. State ballot initiatives and a series of circuit court and Supreme Court decisions have made the point that both the wider public and the Constitution are against them.
If preferences themselves now seem doomed, the impulse that generated them in the first place is alive and well. This is the impulse to engineer an appearance of racial equality rather than develop a true equality based on a parity of skills between the races. Since the 1960s American institutions have been under pressure to prove a negative: that they are not racist and do not discriminate against minorities or women. The impulse behind racial preferences is essentially an expedient that allows institutions to win their moral legitimacy as nonracist institutions whether or not the formerly oppressed achieve an actual parity of skills.
The mechanism by which racial preferences engineer “inclusion” is a tolerance of mediocrity in minorities—allowing mediocrity to win for them what only excellence wins for others.
But attacks on preferences have focused more on their unfair racial exclusivity than on the social engineering by which they function. Now that they are losing favor, we are seeing a new generation of engineering schemes that achieve “inclusion” by extending the tolerance for mediocrity—bringing in more black and brown faces without reference to their race.
What might be called “X percent plans” are an example. California, Texas, and Florida now guarantee university admission to the top 4, 10, and 20 percent, respectively, of all high school graduates. In a segregated state such as Florida, this brings in more black students to the University of Florida because it makes 20 percent of the students in inner-city schools eligible where previously only a small percentage were eligible.
This “raceless” engineering tolerates more mediocrity and relies on segregation to capture the black and brown faces that bring moral authority. It injures these universities more than traditional affirmative action because it extends the tolerance of mediocrity to great numbers of whites in order to get more blacks and Hispanics. Once these flagship state universities are diminished, won't the white flight that happened in K–12 education extend to them? Won’t private colleges and universities—where the tolerance of mediocrity can be isolated to minorities-gain prestige at the expense of these public institutions?
If the era of affirmative action is creeping toward an ignominious end, one of its lessons is that racial disparities ought never be occasions for social engineering. Absent a hard-earned parity of skills and abilities between the races, “inclusion” is necessarily a corruption.