Moving Beyond Affirmative Action


If we are committed to ending discrimination by race, we need to end discrimination by race.

Schools now have affinity groups, which are quasi-social or political gatherings separated by, among other things, race. You have to be black to walk into some of them. There is a history to this.

“Separate but equal” is a phrase from the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in which the Court held that a state law requiring white and black Americans to ride in separate rail cars was constitutional under the 14th Amendment. The upshot was constitutional sanction to laws known as Jim Crow (the name of a popular minstrel character of the time) designed to maintain racial segregation by means of separate public facilities and services.

This led to the era of the Green Book, which told black Americans which hotels would allow them to stay, as well as The Jewish Vacation Guide, which offered the same kind of advice, though we talk about it less. (“Victims of Racism” is a pretty segregated category of its own, it seems.) The Court in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ended the “separate but equal” principle, an example from the 1950s of abandoning stare decisis

But a new version of “separate but equal” is back. The goal of progressives now is more segregated spaces and more segregated paths into jobs and the academy. Progressives do not oppose segregation anymore; they demand it.

Jim Crow is being resurrected in schools, this time through euphemisms such as “black spaces,” “affinity circles,” “affinity dialogue,” and “community-building groups.” One kid I know was confronted with the problem of choosing which affinity group to join, as she fell into several different categories. Should she go with the Asians, or the broader POC group? The female-only POC group? Or just one of the generic women’s groups?

Elsewhere, an elementary school in Denver held a “Families of Color Playground Night.” A school in Rhode Island hosted a “meet and talk” exclusively for its Students of Color affinity group. There are events with tighter restrictions, like black women feminists only. We track obsessively the “First black…” to the point where the NYT felt compelled to single out such accomplishments as the first black person to be recognized as a pro triathlete, the first black woman to win a gold medal in wrestling, and the first black person to be interred at the Panthéon in Paris.

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The return of the separate-but-equal principle is most visible today in school admissions. Separate but equal has been reimagined as offering two tracks into select schools: one of merit, usually an exam, and another that tests nothing but skin color, with standards rigged to matriculate the required percentage of black students. That the latter often results in Asian students (the on-again, off-again POC) being red-lined out seems to be another thing we don’t like to talk about, because some colors are more equal than others. All of this may be changing. The Supreme Court agreed to hear this fall two cases on whether race-based admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are lawful.

The problems with the separate-but-equal principle are many. One real danger is positioning unprepared students to fail, negating any gain from affirmative-action programs. If a student cannot show he knows the subject material well enough to engage with it on a high-level on day one, and if he has not been willing to forego fun activities to put in the study hours, granting him a seat at an elite school via the back door will not solve anything.

Imagine if the Navy SEALs just picked commandos by lottery. Don’t chuckle, that sort of happened at the last Winter Olympics, where, “keenly aware that skiing has been dominated by athletes from richer, colder countries, the International Olympic Committee and skiing’s world governing body have tried to make the sport more inclusive through a quota system that lowers the threshold of qualification.” That resulted in a Ghanaian snow skier, ranked 2,443rd in the world, skiing against the world’s best.

It sounds almost comical, but that is also what is happening through separate-but-equal employment programs, such as the one at Morgan Stanley, or another at my own former employer, the U.S. State Department.

State has had a diversity problem going back to the earliest days of the Republic, when it was said to qualify as a diplomat you needed to be male, pale, and Yale. To fix this two centuries later, the Department created two fellowships that have been used as vehicles to recruit people of “diverse backgrounds,” who turned out to be overwhelming black.

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The Thomas Pickering Fellowship (run by HBCU Howard University) and the Charles B. Rangel Fellowship were put in place by State. Both fellowships claim their entrants take the same written and oral State Department entrance exams as everyone else, but they omit that fellows do so only after the advantages of two summer internships with the State Department, including time abroad, plus assigned mentors.

Fellows are also identified as such to those administering the oral exam required of all prospective diplomats. Having administered the oral exam myself, I knew I would have to justify to my boss’s boss any move to fail a fellow before being overruled; the diversity thumb on the scale. The programs did increase the number of non-white diplomats as they were intended, that is, as a separate-but-equal pathway.

The problems came down the road, when fellows encountered the same promotion and evaluation system as their colleagues. The result was that diversity in the senior ranks of the State Department actually regressed. In 2008, black diplomats made up about 8.6 percent of the top ranks of the diplomatic corps. By 2020, only 2.8 percent of the same top ranks are black.

The answer from foreign-service groups? It must be more racism—characterized diplomatically as “institutional barriers.” Suggestions from foreign-service groups focused on offering black candidates more fellowships to create a bigger pool, and creating special opportunities for black diplomats to snag better assignments (described as “promot[ing] diverse officers’ career development”). That of course repeats the mistake of pushing less-prepared people upward to their eventual failure. While the State Department classifies most of its gender and race promotion results and does not generally release them to the public, data leaked to the NYT shows that only about 1 percent of black diplomats and specialists were promoted in the 2019 fiscal year.

Then there is the flip side. A former diplomat described her Rangel fellowship in 2010 as “more of a stigma than an honor,” as white diplomats routinely assumed fellows qualified for the real job only because of the fellowship. Some minorities at State feel compelled to proactively share with new colleagues they are not Pickering or Rangel Fellows in order to avoid the fall out. 

When I did not get into the State Department my first try, it never occurred to me to ask whether the written test, which was mostly history, geography, and economics, was set up to block me because of how I looked rather than test whether I knew enough about history, geography, and economics. After more education, I passed the same test. It never occurred to me some special channel should have been set up for me.

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It has become a kind of mindset, almost a philosophy, that anything that doesn’t result in perfectly representative racial proportions must by definition be the result of racism and can only be rectified by some kind of separate-but-equal track. But separate but equal in academia and employment, as well as in black spaces and all the rest, produces nothing more than cosmetic diversity. You want X percent of students or diplomats to be black? Fine, the thinking goes, we’ll gerrymander the system to produce that. 

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Given the lack of societal progress wrought by affirmative-action policies over the past several decades, it might just be easier to hire actors so the group photos look “right” and let the process be less separate and more equal. What more devitalizing message could we send to people than that their accomplishments have to be set aside so a person of a protected class can have their place? And what real message are we sending to people of all colors in suggesting the only way one group can succeed is with some special track? 

In the end, aren’t those messages just a twisted version of what separate but equal originally meant, judgment based on race? How did we slip from seeking to educate our best and brightest to thinking cosmetic diversity is the purpose of our elite schools and institutions? At some point, if we are committed to ending discrimination by race, we need to just end discrimination by race.

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