Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Monday, June 23, 2003

Given the Supreme Court's ruling today on affirmative action -- from my reading of this New York Times article seems like they're saying some sort of preference on the basis of race is okay, but specific quotas or point systems are not -- I feel like I ought to write something on the subject. From a legal point of view, I have no idea. I was in a lunchtime conversation one day at law school where people made constitutional arguments on both sides -- I think I was more focused on counting the tiles on the ceiling. So, as a law student, I speak with no authority at all on the legality of this stuff.

But from a practical perspective -- I like the Supreme Court's middle-ground approach. Diversity is good. Absolutely. It makes school better. Being exposed to people of different cultures, of different races -- all good stuff. Helps society to have top schools reflect the nation's population to some degree because if many of the future important people come from top schools, and we want the mix of important people to reflect the mix in society, this is good. Does anybody argue against this? That, in and of itself, given the choice of diversity or no diversity, all else being equal, that diversity isn't preferable? I'm going to assume that even if that's not a universal sentiment, it's reasonable enough. There is value in university students who've, say, never met a Protestant, and whose family thinks that Protestants all have three legs, meeting some Protestants and seeing they're just as smart and civilized and friendly as they are.

But quotas and "bonus points" and stuff like that make people freak out. I read an analogy once that has stuck with me -- people overestimate the negative effects of affirmative action like they overestimate the impact of handicapped parking spaces. Only one person can fit in that space, but every car driving around the parking lot thinks "if only that spot wasn't reserved for the handicapped, I could park there," when really only one of them could. And, yeah, it's kind of icky when someone in an overrepresented group who scores a 1610 on his SAT, wins the Nobel Prize, and has a 5.2 GPA gets rejected in favor of someone in an underrepresented group who scored a 380 on his SAT and has a 0.02 GPA.

But when admissions committees look favorably upon extracurricular participation, situations where students have overcome hardship, good reference letters, or sports stardom, people don't complain so much. And when they look at legacies, or, for some schools (that aren't need-blind), ability-to-pay, people complain, but not so much as to file lawsuits (or do they? I just may not know of them.) So it seems like treating diversity as another category to strive for -- we want a mix of artistic people, sports people, math people, and diverse people... -- isn't so awful, and is pretty much this middle ground that the Supreme Court is trying to find.

I realize I've failed to be particularly informative or controversial here, but pretty much only served to give my relatively uninformed opinion about why I think the Supreme Court is doing okay here, and why I think some sort of affirmative action is good, but quotas and rigid stuff like that is bad. I can see both sides. It's not fair to underrepresented groups who may not, on the aggregate given demographic realities, get the same kinds of opportunities in terms of elementary schooling and advanced placement classes and, because of past discrimination, have the same kinds of networks and connections to people in society's power elite. And so affirmative action in principle can do a good job of compensating for some of these things, and making opportunities available to people who might otherwise not need the help affirmative action provides, but for the demographic realities. And I understand the other side, that says it's not fair to give advantages (a) to individuals who haven't necessarily been disadvantaged, and (b) on a basis that undercuts the idea of a meritocracy and people being judged on demonstrated performance and potential, not on aggregate demographics and the injustices of past generations. This is no doubt an oversimplification of both sides of the argument, but hopefully does an equally incomplete job of stating each side, no one can get mad at me.

I'm going to read the actual Supreme Court opinions tonight, and probably realize I have no idea what I'm talking about.