Yesterday, we learned that the Trump administration plans to investigate “reverse discrimination” against white college applicants. As always, the very term tacitly admits that white racism against others is the standard or natural kind — and even they can’t quite bring themselves to call it “racism” without some qualifier (“reverse,” “against whites”). The attempt to root out discrimination against whites is delusional and it is bound to have negative results (if it has any results at all — it may be an empty gesture to placate the base). But at least among white commentators, it is very difficult to find a full-throated defense of affirmative action. In fact, many of the standard responses — “Trump benefited from affirmative action for whites!” — are implicitly (and I hope unconsciously) based on the premise that affirmative action is illegitimate.
I, for one, support affirmative action, 100%. I am happy for anyone from a disadvantaged group to be hired, promoted, or published over me. But no one can deny that affirmative action is intrinsically flawed on the level of strategy. It was bound to stoke a backlash, and that backlash has access to arguments that sound strong and principled to most white people. And it doesn’t even solve the root problem, which is unequal access to the resources that generate “merit” in our system.
The intervention comes too late, and in that respect it’s a symptom of American society’s tendency to try to solve all social problems by means of higher ed. I work in higher ed and it’s a great thing, but it is not up to the task of radically remaking American society and never will be. You can’t restructure the US economy using a mechanism that was originally created to reproduce and legitimate privilege. Tools can be repurposed, but there are limits.