Social Change and Democratic Values: Reconceptualizing Affirmative Action Policy

Article excerpt

At the dawn of a new millennium, America's quest to overcome the lasting impact of centuries of racial inequality is on a collision course with its even more pervasive preoccupation with quantifiable measurements of that all American social good, "success." According to Nicholas Lemann in The Big Test: the Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York, 1999), his masterful account of this impending collision course in higher education, "two conflicting sets of numbers" are being generated that spell mutually inconsistent solutions for distributing high-stakes educational opportunity. The first is "everyone's scores on standardized tests." The second is "the share of good jobs and educational billets" held by African Americans or women. Those who believe in education by the first set of numbers allocate places in colleges or universities based on scores on mental aptitude tests. Deciding who "deserves" to benefit from admission to selective colleges and universities occurs within a testocracy which sorts, evaluates, and ranks measurable mental aptitude. Test scores are presumed to tell us all that we can and need to know about each applicant's potential and future capacity, defined by "merit." Those committed to the second set of numbers believe just as fervently in discovering and promoting untapped, and perhaps immeasurable, human potential when it lives in dark-skinned or female bodies. Commitments to the second set of numbers are defended in the name of fairness. In recent years, claims of merit have trumped African American's claims of fairness.

The testocrats, those who believe in the first set of numbers, are certain that those who are capable of knowing the most will rise to become part of a competent and legitimate intellectual elite or mental theocracy. Thus. they satisfy concerns about fairness and equal opportunity when access to higher education--or other opportunities such as jobs or public offices--is awarded in an open competition to those with the most merit, i.e., those with the highest test scores. While the old boys network of yore was an elite based on inherited privilege, this new elite claims to earn their places based on their inherited aptitude, legitimated by claims of democratic opportunity. Equal opportunity in this understanding means the opportunity to achieve one's just deserts based on one's measurable merit. Once a meritocracy is firmly in place, the equal opportunity society expects nothing further of its successes. Equality of results is anathema. Monitoring what anyone does with opportunity is tyrannical. Society will certainly benefit, since those who are most deserving will be justly rewarded, and thus presumably have incentive to keep climbing upward.

In contrast, those who emphasize the second set of numbers--defenders of affirmative action--seek to measure how far we have come from slavery and state-sanctioned segregation. They seek to redistribute opportunity to succeed based on principles of fairness to ensure that those who have traditionally been denied such opportunity are compensated or at least no longer held back. They argue that the traditional "test-centered" approaches to merit--based on fixed, one-size-fits-all tests of mental aptitude--simply fail to detect the actual potential of those who, because of the legacy of human bondage and Jim Crow, are ill prepared to excel on aptitude tests but can nevertheless succeed. This approach implicitly questions whether indicators of aptitude measured by standard tests are a true test of merit, but this critique is more often than not left unstated. Whether the "winners" deserve to succeed, i.e., whether they have "merit," is not the issue. The question is whether the particular losers of color deserve to lose.

The need to assure diversity among those admitted to elite universities, as with other educational opportunities, is one way this concern with fairness and compensatory justice has recently been articulated. …