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Potential Affirmative Action Policy Changes Focus of Miller Center Debate

April 22, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Academics and analysts discussed whether affirmative action policies should continue to be based on race and ethnicity or changed to reflect a person's class and wealth. Ray Suarez moderated the debate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of the issues raised in today’s case were discussed at a recent debate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The topic was whether affirmative action policies in education and employment should continue to be based on race and ethnicity or changed to reflect a person’s class and wealth.

I was the moderator. The participants were John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP; Dalton Conley, chair of sociology and acting dean of the social sciences at New York University; and Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University.

Here’s an excerpt.

JOHN MCWHORTER, Manhattan Institute: What this comes down to is a question that I think we’re not asking about affirmative action of any kind, and it’s something I’ve always been quite unclear on.

Exactly who decides, who has told us what the proportion of, for example, black people is supposed to be in a given institution and why? Where’s the number?

And so, obviously, if discrimination is demonstrable, go get them. We have to, you know, persecute racism. That’s fine. But what about when it barely is?

And then it seems to me that we’re doing a kind of social engineering, which actually does harm to students. If you actually talk to black and Latino students, they tend not to be terribly fond of being treated as pawns in a diversity tableau. They’re in school to get an education.

JULIAN BOND, NAACP: I was going to say Dr. McWhorter is wrong to think that people don’t talk about the number. Sandra Day O’Connor famously said in her decision in these most recent cases that affirmative action ought to have a 25-year life.

But in her autobiography, she asked the rhetorical question, how will we know when women have reached equality in America? And she said, We’ll know when women have reached a percentage in the professions equal to their percentage in the population.

So people do talk about that. And I just found it interesting that Justice O’Connor set a time standard for race-based affirmative action, but a numerical standard and a quota for women.

Demand for a new approach

DALTON CONLEY, New York University: I'm a pragmatist, and I think that the passions around this issue, the plebiscites across the nation, by state by state, suggest that we need to try something new.

We have not paid enough attention to the issues of class and wealth in admissions policy, period. We've paid attention to the wrong way, as I mentioned, with donors and elite legacy admissions.

What if we had a different American society where there were no huge class differences by race? Then slowly race would become more like ethnicity. It would be more like the difference between being Polish and Italian. It would be a cultural heritage. It would be something we want to preserve, something that's important to people themselves, but it would not determine your life's chances. And that's ultimately what we're talking about.

LEE BOLLINGER, Columbia University: I find the spirit in which he says it very appealing, that is, if you could eliminate wealth differences, or reduce them significantly, that would lead to elimination of perceived and felt differences based on race generally in the society. My own personal feeling is that that just would not happen.

We just need to focus not only on race and ethnicity in admissions, but all the other things that are taken into account. So if one wants to criticize universities for social engineering, then let's also talk about geographic diversity.

From the very early part of this country, there was a sense that universities and colleges could play a role of bringing citizens from all different parts of the country together to create a more unified, democratic polity. That is something we all, I think, accept as extremely important. I would say the same is true with respect to integration and race since Brown.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Bollinger was referring, of course, to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ordered the desegregation of public schools. The Miller Center debate can be seen in its entirety on PBS. Please check your local station listings for the time.