Speculating on the End of the Racial Spoils System

Robert Weissberg

For fans of merit, the current higher education landscape is a depressing place. Voters and judges will occasionally ban race-based admissions, but sooner or later they reappear. Budgetary crises may force universities to cut bureaucratic fat, but anything associated with diversity, inclusion and outreach always survives if not expands. Empty calorie group identity courses have long become sacrosanct. And on and on and on. At best, outsider critics can only annoy the entrenched colossus.

But don’t be too depressed—history is on our side. Parallels exist between today’s academic racial spoils system and the Soviet Union circa early 1980s. Recall that no academic or public official imagined the USSR’s downfall. Yes, the Soviet economy might sputter, but, rest assured said the experts, the Evil Empire was forever. Today’s academic racial spoils system may suffer the same unexpected fate—a quick and unexpected collapse.

This parallel rests on what happens when ideological narratives lose credibility. The old Bolsheviks really believed as per Marxism that the dictatorship of the proletariat would eventually bring Utopia. The Khrushchev generation likewise embraced the Marxist narrative but less enthusiastically--defending the motherland replaced worldwide revolution and private property might have to be tolerated. By the Gorbachev era, however, the Marxist vision was caput. Failure was inescapable, so propping up the Evil Empire was largely opportunistic, not promoting the inexorable march of history. It didn’t take much, and it was all over.

Two narratives undergird racial preferences in contemporary higher education. The first concerns the horrible suffering of African Americans: Jim Crow, lynchings, inferior schools, disenfranchisement, anti-miscegenation laws, and pervasive racial discrimination. Nobody, regardless of where they stand on racial preferences, doubts the narrative’s historical veracity.

The second narrative is more recent and rests entirely on “it seems reasonable.” This is diversity—bringing together people of different races and ethnicities (even sexual preference) improves everything.  

My sense is that both narratives are colliding with reality; fewer and fewer believe them. And this decline is inexorable. I see nothing that could invigorate them. They are receding into the dustbin of history, as Karl Marx would put it. Recent efforts at reinvigoration—cries of institutional racism, environmental racism, and micro-aggression (among multiple other contemporary alleged white-inflicted harms) lack the emotional impact of “Colored Only” drinking fountains. Demands for “racial justice” just don’t resonate in today’s world of government anti-discrimination agencies, equal opportunity commissions, racial gerrymandering, set-aside programs and judicial decrees to help African Americans.

A current freshman was born around 1995 and has only known racial preferences (equally true for parents most likely born around 1970). Ditto for current faculty—I began my academic career in 1969 and affirmative action was already in place so senior faculty have experienced racial preferences over their entire career. Moreover, nearly everyone on today’s campus knows of innumerable failed expensive social engineering schemes to achieve equality. Some of these ineffective programs are now a half century old.      

What can today’s white or Asian freshmen think when told that American is hopelessly racist curable only by pervasive racial preferences, including Orwellian sensitivity training to expose “white privilege”?  As the other Marx—Groucho, not Karl, said, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?” Surely today’s freshman has encountered textbooks highlighting African American contributions to culture and science and lots of black teachers and administrators (even in majority white schools). He has celebrated Black History Month and Martin Luther King’s birthday. Perhaps most significantly, he probably knows of minority classmates with lackluster academic records being admitted to top colleges with generous scholarships. He may have also heard stories of whites being passed over in hiring or promotion as a result of racial quotas. And what about President Barrack Obama’s election?  With plain-to-see oppression in short supply, no wonder there is an alleged “invisible racism.”  

Campus reality is similarly subversive. Thanks to schools admitting African American students a cut or two below the standards set for whites and Asians, it is natural to surmise that minority students—not whites or Asians—comprise the privileged class. Save for the willfully ideologically blind, this awkward reality is inescapable: racial differences in fields of study, classroom performance, class rank, and the remedial programs targeting minorities (all reinforced by publically available data on SAT, MCAT and similar discomforting test scores).  The catalogue of disconcerting facts is huge, but we’ll stop here.      

The diversity narrative is similarly growing stale, and it is hard to imagine anybody even barely aware of the outside world concluding that ethnic and religious diversity is beneficial. Just ask an Indian student about Pakistanis or a Nigerian about how their religious and tribal differences contribute to Nigeria’s prosperity. How about the joys of religious diversity in the Middle East? And how can champions of diversity-is-our-strength explain why students generally prefer to associate with their “own”? Or why is diversity forcefully imposed when it is so obviously valuable? Are people blind to their self-interest? It is hardly accidental that diversity advocates must rely on hypothetical examples.

In fact, today’s relentless campus propaganda suggests that diversicrats realize that they are in an uphill struggle, a war against an ever-intruding unwelcome reality. What else explains the speech codes, mandatory indoctrination classes, overreaction to alleged hate (including treating blatant hoaxes as teachable incidents) and all the rest? The proselytizing should now be unnecessary. This heavy-handed agitprop hardly suggests self-confidence.  

This is not to say that students will soon demand ending the spoils system. Nor will administrators openly celebrate if the Supreme Court narrows preferences. My point is modest (and recall, somewhat speculative): support for the entire race-based colossus among most students and perhaps a majority of faculty is shallow, more about avoiding trouble than a faith worth defending. If the spoils system disappeared tomorrow, few would care, including alumni. The general public would certainly not be outraged. Save the most gullible, students and faculty only pretend to drink the Kool Aid. One can perhaps be reminded of the Soviet apparatchiks during the Brezhnev era gathering in the Great Hall of the Peoples to applaud blatant lies and nobody daring to be the first to stop clapping.

The orthodoxy largely depends on those whose livelihood depends on it—armies of tutors, counselors, professors teaching identity politics, a handful of racial egalitarians and all deans of Diversity and Inclusion. I strongly suspect that financially worried administrators, regardless of ideology, would be thrilled if the entire enterprise mysteriously vanished overnight and the money could be redirected to academic pursuits. 

So, what might the future hold? As the venerable Yogi Berra once said, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future, but let me suggest that as with the Soviet downfall, when it happens it will happen almost overnight. It will only require a few unambiguous court decisions and the political will to enforce them. A serious financial collapse might also help.  

This will be particularly true at top schools given enrollment shifts; less true of schools with generous admission standards. Of the utmost political importance, nobody will be denied access to a college education. This is about race-based preferences (and the accompanying bureaucratic infrastructures), not denying anybody an opportunity to earn a degree. Indeed, many decent non-elite schools will probably welcome smart minority students who would have once been admitted to Ivy League colleges.

It will not, however, be cheap to put this into context, less than the price of a few F-35 Lightening stealth multi-role fighters (average cost—approximately $200 million per plane). As a practical matter I suspect that schools will have to offer substantial buyout packages while not filling positions as diversicrats retire or find jobs elsewhere (government might well soak up the surplus labor). Better yet, these shuttered departments and associated overhead can be spun-off into separate colleges thanks to philanthropists like Bill Gates or the Broad Foundation, happy to spend billions to help minorities.

Phasing out unneeded departments and administrators is hardly novel. Financially pressed schools have abolished entire departments, shuttered schools of architecture and music, or just combined and downsized departments. Even men’s sports programs have gotten the ax to achieve gender equality. Let me put it this way: compare the outrage of ending the racial spoils system with abolishing the football or basketball program.       

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