Ruben Navarrette: Affirmative action has overstayed its welcome


Ruben Navarrette Jr., The Washington Post



SAN DIEGO — Color me surprised. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and I finally agree on something, albeit with radically different motives. It’s time to end affirmative action in college and university admissions.

The Alabaman — who has been wrong on matters involving race and ethnicity for his entire career — used to be my least favorite senator. Now he’s my least favorite Cabinet official.

Under Sessions’ direction, the Justice Department recently announced that it will take a long, hard look at the controversial practice — which goes back about 50 years — of colleges and universities taking into account the race and ethnicity of applicants in the hopes of achieving a more diverse student body. The lawyers have already telegraphed what they intend to find: rampant discrimination against white people who were wrongly rejected to make room so that “less qualified” Latinos and African-Americans could be accepted.

You can see where this is headed. The Trump administration is poised to make a federal case out of affirmative action, file racial discrimination lawsuits against universities, and force a showdown in the Supreme Court in the hopes of killing the program once and for all.

Bill Clinton tried to split the baby to please both people of color and conservative white Democrats by feebly suggesting that the proper way to navigate the affirmative action minefield was to “mend it, but don’t end it.” But Trump — who was elected with minuscule support from Latinos and African-Americans — doesn’t even have to do that much. His presidency comes to us courtesy of white America, and that’s who he’s looking out for.

And so, if you’re a Trump voter and you’ve fallen on hard times, and blaming immigrants or trade deals isn’t satisfying enough for you, well, there’s always the old scapegoat: minorities. The administration’s message becomes: “It’s an outrage. Your kid might be able to go to a better college if some Latina hadn’t taken his spot!”

The real outrage is that there is anyone still around who believes this rubbish. The idea that white people are victims of so-called “reverse discrimination” is a total fantasy. Math puts the lie to it. Just look around. You can’t be discriminated against because of skin color if other people who have the same skin color are advancing. The truth is you’re just being outperformed by your own kind. Deal with it.

I’ve traveled in some elite circles — from the Ivy League, to major media companies, to judging the Pulitzer Prize. And do you know what I’ve noticed? White folks are doing just fine, especially white males.

Still, Sessions and the Justice Department are right to be skeptical of affirmative action — and even more hostile to its more malignant cousin: racial and ethnic preferences. Engineering by race and ethnicity is a messy business, and colleges and universities should stay out of it.

It’s also a dangerous practice. And, as the Trump administration suspects, someone is indeed getting hurt. It’s just not who they think it is. The folks being harmed by affirmative action are Latinos and African-Americans, ironically the program’s intended beneficiaries.

Affirmative action lowers standards, stigmatizes recipients and masks terrible inequity at the all-important K-12 level fueled by tracking and low expectations. It also allows upper-class minorities who have suffered little or no hardship to benefit while the truly needy are overlooked and promotes elitism by allowing into privileged arenas a small group of high-performing Latinos and African-Americans who scoop up all the benefits. Meanwhile, the majority of their communities are shortchanged by the public schools and will never be in a position to receive one of these golden passports.

I’m not saying that affirmative action did no good, and that it wasn’t once a reasonable idea. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and they lived through unvarnished racism and discrimination. My father wanted to be a policeman in an era when that goal seemed — to most Mexican-American kids — as unattainable as becoming an astronaut or nuclear physicist. In the 1970s, affirmative action helped him get his badge and earn promotions.

But that doesn’t mean it should be there for my children, who — 40 years later — are being raised in the suburbs by parents who have graduate degrees.

Affirmative action had its time and place. But this is a different time and place. This policy has overstayed its welcome, and now it has to go.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr., The Washington Post

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.