Justice Scalia and Affirmative Action – A Case Study in Illiberal Outrage

When it takes a conservative Supreme Court justice to ask the questions that true liberals ought to be asking themselves, then you know something has gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes in life, we let our good intentions affirmative-action2get in the way of good results. Or as I like to say: “feelz before reals …”

Earlier this week, during the United States Supreme Court hearings over affirmative action in Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that African-Americans might do better educationally and economically if they were more closely matched with appropriate universities:

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well.”

And of course, progressive outrage was immediate, with various outlets claiming he said “blacks are slower”, black lawmakers demanding his removal, and the Senate Democrat leader labeling him a racist and other various “isms” (source).

Now, I don’t usually agree with a lot Scalia says. But in this case, it is the illiberals who have, once again, forsaken liberal principles. Their “feelings” have gotten in the way of the very principles they claim to stand for.

The problem is that Scalia was, in fact, referring to something called the Mismatch Theory of college admissions, which while controversial, has some academic evidence to support it. In fact, even more liberal publications like The Atlantic have written about it in recent years. It is neither a new idea, nor a completely outrageous one.

Several articles and blog posts have been written about this in recent days. The most balanced and insightful I’ve seen is this one by Alison Somin at the Federalist Society. There have also been ones with a more conservative slant, and ones with a more left-wing slant (as well as this left-leaning one from the NY Times).

But here’s the crux of the issue: regardless of whether Mismatch Theory is true or not, the fact is that it raises a number of important issues about systematic problems in the American educational system and highlights potential flaws with Affirmative Action as an effective solution. For instance, it’s not really debatable that black students coming out of underperforming inner city high schools are at a disadvantage in college and life in general. You can look at the aforementioned Atlantic article for various sourced stats, like blacks abandoning STEM fields at twice the rate of whites, failing legal bar exams at 4 times the rate of whites, and typically ranking in the bottom 20% of their classes. The fact is, they are often ill-prepared and/or perform poorly in college. We may see the occasional poignant story of one student who manages to overcome these challenges, but remember: THE EXCEPTION DOES NOT INVALIDATE THE RULE.

The real question is how weaffirmative-action1 can best help those people help themselves. And it is a completely fair question whether throwing them into situations that they are ill-prepared for is the right move. Sure, some may swim, but many others will sink.

But from a liberal perspective, the real issue here is this. Any true classical liberal would welcome a discussion over how to best ensure an individual’s right to self-determination. How to best ensure equal opportunity? How to ameliorate the systematic issues? Are we incentivizing the right things for individuals? Is what we are doing actually working? They would welcome the open, vibrant discourse around various public policies toward those, such vibrant discourse after all is a hallmark of liberal societies. They would not cling to certain notions based purely on how well they fit the Identity Politics narrative … because the outcome of the group does not trump the outcome of the individual.

And what’s craziest about this whole thing is that it took a conservative Supreme Court justice to ask the questions true liberals ought to be asking themselves. Instead, many so-called “liberals” appear to be paying blind homage to the specter of Progressive politics. And in the end, they may be hurting the very people they claim to want to be helping.

There is a difference between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. The former is what we call “equity”; the latter is what we call “equality”.

When most people say equality, they really mean equity. And the reality is that equality in the sense of equal outcomes (i.e. making everything exactly the same) is probably impossible.  The reason this site or other similar places seems to be against the Progressive version of “equality” is because most people are misusing the term. Equity, on the other hand, is something most of us can agree on.

The great irony here is that, in their quest for equal outcomes, the illiberal Progressives may in fact be undermining real equity. In other words, undermining what most people mean by “equality”. And that, my friends, is a discussion any true Liberal would recognize as worth having.

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