Thursday, October 07, 2021

Three Feet Shorter

When the Supreme Court upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School as pursuing the compelling state interest of "racial diversity", Justice Scalia was scornful. The values of diversity -- inclusivity, tolerance, learning to work with people across differences -- were best taught to students "three feet shorter and twenty years younger" than the typical law student.

Four years later, though, when the Court in the Parents Involved case considered programs securing racial diversity in primary and secondary schools, this logic disappeared. It turned out that Scalia and the conservatives didn't want to inculcate these values at a younger age; they just didn't want them inculcated at all.

I was thinking about this upon reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's fusillade against "critical race theory" in primary schools. The scare quotes are appropriate, since as Ali concedes, the racial justice initiatives she objects to in primary education do not go by the name "critical race theory" even as the right labors feverishly to place them under the label. In a truly spectacular leap of logic, that the right calls things "critical race theory" that are not "critical race theory" is not evidence that they're simply making things up, but rather is demonstrative of the theory's proponents showing a "remarkable ability to shape-shift".

But I digress. Ali's main argument is that affirmative action programs have been "clear failure", listing off a bevy of racial inequalities that still exist in the fifty years following the civil rights revolution. Of course, the crit would suggest that this shows the problems of racism in America run deeper than a few diversity initiatives can fix; and even the non-crit might find it odd to see evidence of ongoing racial inequality mustered as proof that we need to think less about matters of racial inequality. But Ali, ever the iconoclast, puts the entirety of the blame on affirmative action itself -- specifically, Richard Sander's "mismatch" theory. Leave aside the various criticisms one might have of that theory. Its core logic is that, by the time we reach the point of a collegiate affirmative action program, it's too late to undo the failures of the primary educational system to provide the foundations and skills necessary for students of color to thrive in elite university settings. The intervention occurs too late in the day.

So the obvious implication is that we should be investing our energies earlier in the process -- concentrating on students when they are twenty years younger and three feet smaller. And yet, it turns out, Ali -- like her fellow conservatives -- doesn't support this either. In fact, they're even more enraged when the persons concerned about racial inequity begin focusing on the primary rather than the collegiate level (even though the "mismatch" arguments that nominally undergirded their objection to the latter have no relevance to the former). The objection, it turns out, has nothing to do with the when, but is entirely about the what: an ideological opposition to trying to dismantle racial inequalities in education -- no matter how tall or short the students may be.

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