As an academic, I worked where affirmative action does most of its work: higher ed.
Each semester, I would get an e-mail from administration asking how one or two students were doing in my class. Peculiarly (I thought), they always happened to ask about the one or two D or F students in a class of perhaps 60 people, all with better grades.
Upon reviewing the exams of these one or two students, I found they were completely clueless about the material. They had missed the basics that I had thought everyone should have already known. (Imagine teaching a geometry class but discovering on the exam that the student can’t add. Your course is not helping them, but there they are anyway.)
It was only in my sixth year of teaching that I found out how the administrators were able to predict which students were doing poorly. The students they asked about were affirmative action admits. These students were (not) coincidentally always lost in class. The administration polled professors about these students because they tended to fail classes, and they needed advance notice to be able to assign tutors to keep these students afloat on a semester-by-semester basis.
Irrespective of the merits of affirmative action, my personal experience left me horrified by its ineffectiveness. The students perhaps would graduate with a degree at the very bottom of their class, which would send them back to their old neighborhood to do something they could have done without the degree. I’ve worked for a few “equal-opportunity” employers, and all that means is that we went to minority-targeted job fairs and posted jobs in minority-targeted publications. Minorities were extended no courtesy in hiring decisions, so the benefits accruing to these students were probably minimal.
I know that affirmative action isn’t supposed to work like this. AA students are supposed to be only a bit off from the students they displace, but that wasn’t my experience at two large state universities.
Of course, this is not the whole story. The whole story would include a note about how these students were actually among the top students back in their neighborhoods. Acceptance into a state university was the least that we could do for these students. And when I say “the least we could do”, I mean it literally.
The legal justifications for affirmative action entertained by the Supreme Court and covered by Burt last week were just that: legal justifications. All the talk of redressing past wrongs or diversity are intellectual veneer that hides our true particle board motives.
I hypothesize* that our main motives are to entrench our current social order. We on top don’t want K-12 education to be equal throughout America. Truly leveling K-12 education would horrify even middle-class parents. Especially middle-class parents.
Acknowledging this, of course, is not an option. It’s too horrific to admit. But the guilt still burns, so we soothe it with the balm of affirmative action. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the safety net. Head Start, Obamacare, progressive taxation, and all the rest are morsels of compassion engineered to excuse us from the need to fix K-12.
* Everything in the post beyond this point is speculative. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.