From Volume 79, Number 6 (September 2006)
Despite over a quarter century of affirmative action policy, public endorsement of the practice by leading American institutions, and validation by the United States Supreme Court, the relevance of race in university admissions and hiring decisions remains a persistent source of conflict. Disagreement, however, has not produced a particularly robust or constructive public dialogue on this issue. Indeed, public conversation regarding the appropriateness of race preferences remains mired in an unhealthy and unproductive impasse.
The breakdown usually, but not always, occurs along traditional ideological lines. Progressive proponents generally endorse the use of race preferences as a measured response to the perceived malign status quo of American race relations. They highlight myriad ways in which individual and institutional practices have, over time, worked to entrench the subordinated status of racial minorities and point to race preferences as an example of the kind of robust, substantive, and race-conscious response that “justice” demands. Conservative opponents generally acknowledge persistent racial disparities in health, wealth, and society, but point to substantial advances in modern race relations as a testament to the virtues of colorblindness and formal racial equality – virtues threatened by the reliance upon race when dispensing educational and employment opportunities and other social goods. Impassioned disagreement is inevitable, given the extended legacy of racial oppression, conflicting perceptions of racial injustice, and divergent visions of what a racially just society entails. What might have been the subject of robust exchanges of ideas, however, now cycles stubbornly and uncomfortably within a caustic, ideological cul-de-sac.