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Rahim Mohamed: Affirmative action is not a straightforward, black-and-white issue

Commentary

The United States Supreme Court struck a critical blow to so-called “affirmative action” in higher education with its recent ruling that college admissions offices can no longer consider race when evaluating the applications of prospective students. The 6-3 decision reversed nearly five decades of established precedent allowing colleges to develop race-conscious admissions policies.

The decision marked a major victory for the plaintiff group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which has held that “holistic” admissions procedures commonly used by highly selective American colleges are biased against Asian Americans; notably placing Asian applicants lower, on average, than applicants from other ethnic groups on non-academic measures like “personality”. (One of the group’s most high-profile members is Ontario-born Calvin Yang, currently a rising junior at the University of California, Berkeley.)  

Indeed, a 99-page brief filed by SFFA in advance of the decision was rife with skin-crawling examples of admissions officers exhibiting blatant racial bias against Asian American applicants. One online exchange between two admissions officers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill reads as follows:

perfect 2400 SAT All 5 on AP one B in 11th [grade]

Brown?!

 Heck no. Asian.

Of course. Still impressive.

The same brief showed that top Asian applicants to Harvard were a third less likely than White applicants and less than half as likely as Black applicants to receive a strong personality score. (Harvard’s controversial “personal rating” scale rates applicants on abstract qualities like “leadership”, “kindness”, and “likeability”.) All told, the most elite Asian American applicants had just a 12.7 percent admit rate. Black applicants with similar grades and test scores had a better than one-in-two chance of admission. (14.7 percent of all applicants in the highest academic decile received acceptance letters). 

While the evidence marshaled by SSFA is incontrovertible, I’ll cop to some degree of ambivalence regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling as a former instructor at one of the two universities named in the case. 

While working towards my Ph.D. in the 2010s, I taught undergraduate political science classes for five years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Years removed from my time in the “Southern part of Heaven”, I still look back fondly on this chapter of my career. Teaching at UNC gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help mold some of the state’s most promising young men and women. It also left me with a lifelong connection to the Tar Heel State.

One of the things I liked most about UNC was that its undergraduate student body felt like a true microcosm of the state. Students from all 100 of the state’s counties congregated in Chapel Hill and roughly one in 12 undergraduates identified as Black (versus just 3 percent of undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley and 4 percent of University of Michigan undergrads). UNC’s distinctly local feel was a point of pride for many on campus—UNC students jokingly dubbed rival Duke University, located just nine miles up the road, as “The University of New Jersey at Durham” (three in 10 Duke undergraduates hail from Northeastern states; double the number of in-state students). 

And the diversity of the undergraduate student body (both socioeconomic and racial) undoubtedly translated into a richer classroom environment. Moderating classroom discussions on hot-button political topics felt, at times, like leading a raucous focus group of swing-state voters. Black students from Charlotte would spar passionately with MAGA hat-toting frat boys over the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement; ROTC kids would go toe-to-toe with Left-leaning townies (often the children of UNC profs) over the propriety of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. It was the very antithesis of the algorithmic echo chambers that have come to epitomize political discourse in the age of social media. 

More broadly, living in a former Confederate state where over one in five residents identify as Black made it impossible for me to ignore the structural disadvantages that young African Americans must navigate every day. Without fail, the “Black part” of town would be dotted with liquor stores, payday lenders, and pawn shops—without a grocery store or public library in sight. A longstanding practice of using property taxes to fund public education has left predominantly Black schools across the state chronically underfunded and under-resourced. 

This structural disadvantage is perhaps reflected most vividly in the brazenness with which state legislatures in North Carolina have pursued racial gerrymandering. (Partisan redistricting is commonplace in the U.S.) In the 1990s, North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District (A.K.A. the “I-85 District”) drew national attention as the “most gerrymandered district in America.” The zig-zagging district snaked across 150 miles of highway, packing together Black neighbourhoods in the urban centres of Charlotte and Durham (located over two hours apart). The almost comically gerrymandered District 12 was litigated for over two decades before finally being blown up in a 2017 Supreme Court decision (conservative Justice Clarence Thomas joined his liberal colleagues in voting to dismantle the district).

I’ve also seen firsthand just how life-changing a UNC education can be for students from disadvantaged Black communities. One of my most memorable students, a young African American woman who grew up in inner-city Durham, was able to land a coveted internship with a prominent member of Congress (and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus) upon graduating. She later attended law school and now works as a civil litigation lawyer back in her hometown. Her story illustrates just how pivotal high-quality public universities like UNC can be to the upward mobility of racially disadvantaged students. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action has left me with mixed emotions that I still cannot fully work out. While entirely sympathetic to the grievances of the case’s Asian American plaintiffs (and, at times, a victim of the same cultural stereotypes myself), I also firmly believe that state flagship universities like UNC have an obligation to serve a broad cross-section of their respective states—and a special obligation to young people from disadvantaged communities. Such institutions are also one of the last fora, in our siloed and polarized climate, where young people from virtually all walks of life can come together and engage in good-faith discussions of topics of political and social importance. I fear that the SFFA decision will contribute to elite universities becoming even more insular ivory towers (although that horse may, admittedly, have already left the barn). 

Even as the SFFA decision has established, definitively, that race-conscious admissions policies can themselves perpetuate racial bias, it will be far from the last word on racial equity in higher education. My own time at UNC has shown me that affirmative action is not a straightforward, black-and-white issue, but one shrouded in shades of grey.  

Opinion: More than a political opportunist, Canada’s most important prime minister was a distinctly Canadian conservative

Commentary

The following article is an excerpt from an essay, entitled “Canadian conservatism and national developmentalism: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Hamiltonian persuasion”, that was published as part of an essay compilation on Canadian conservative political thought earlier this year. You can find the book, edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, here

Modern historiography still paints a picture of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first and most significant prime minister, as the consummate pragmatist who was driven more by partisan politics than a coherent ideological vision. He was indeed the ultimate coalition builder, the ultimate deal maker, the master compromiser. But this political savvy and skillful statecraft, which made him a successful and dominant political force, was, according to the standard historiographical narrative, not matched by any serious underlying worldview or ideology. While scholars may accept that he had instinctual loyalties and political leanings, the prevailing story is that Macdonald’s concerns were ultimately practical and prudential, not philosophical or ideological, and it was this lack of coherent political worldview that ultimately made him an effective political operative.

His legacy has also at times been diminished by modern conservatives who have both accepted the academic historians’ characterization of Macdonald as an unrooted political opportunist and criticized his use of the levers of state power (including preferential tariffs and business subsidies) to actively shape certain market outcomes as out of step with contemporary libertarian economics. It is not uncommon, for instance, particularly among young conservatives, to instead elevate Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who was known for rhetorical flourishes such as “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality”) as the real antecedent to modern conservatism’s emphasis on economic freedom in general and liberal economics in particular.

These interpretations of Macdonald are superficial and unfair. They are predicated on a narrow conception of political values that belies a more sophisticated reading of the intellectual foundation of his enduring accomplishments. They, in short, reflect a misunderstanding of the Canadian conservative tradition.

We argue that Macdonald possessed a political worldview that situates him into a distinct conservative tradition that fits the Canadian context much better than other abstract and decontextualized accounts of what conservatism is about. Macdonald actually leaves a rich ideological tradition that we call (borrowed from Tyler Cowen) “state-capacity conservatism.” 

Although Macdonald’s worldview was fundamentally rooted in Enlightenment liberalism, it was tempered by his dispositional conservatism reflective of the unique particularities of nineteenth-century Canada. This amalgam of liberalism and conservatism manifested itself in a political programme that envisioned a limited yet energetic role for the state in supporting national development.

Our understanding of Macdonald and his worldview is premised on an important assumption about conservatism itself. Drawing on the ideas of conservative historian Samuel Huntington, we argue that conservatism, properly understood, cannot be understood absent of the specific situational and historical contexts in which it is found. There is no purely abstract perspective or ideal form of conservatism that looks the exact same in every place or context. The inherent nature of conservatism necessarily makes it context dependent. Macdonald’s political worldview cannot therefore be properly understood divorced of the geographic, historical, and political context in which it found expression.

Macdonald is, in other words, a keenly and inescapably Canadian conservative. His form of state-capacity conservatism—including the creation of the Canadian state and the building of a national economy and political union—are tied up in the practicalities of British North America. The country’s unique political geography in particular fundamentally shaped Macdonald’s own conservatism. 

Confederation produced a large, sparsely populated nation that quickly became a continental federation. Market forces alone were not going to bind the country together as an economic and social union. Building a new nation with a such low population density was necessarily going to require a unique political economy model that saw a role for the state that went beyond enabling certain market activity and instead was prepared to guide and shape the market in the realms of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and so forth. Canada, in short, needed a national developmentalist strategy that enabled it to overcome geographic and demographic obstacles to its nation-building ambitions.

Seeking to build a new nation in the shadow of a dynamic and rapidly growing America was also a significant contextual consideration. Confederation was in large part a union that was forged to ensure that the various colonies of British North America could resist absorption into a growing United States. Resisting the powerful pull of continentalism and building a new, distinct nation was going to require rapid economic and social development—particularly in the face of a real and perceived threat of U.S. expansionary ambitions. A durable union could only be realized and preserved through a dynamic combination of growth and progress.

Our geographic and demographic challenges, including proximity to the United States, form the basic conditions and context in which Macdonald’s conservatism has to be understood. In order to preserve and grow the new national union forged in 1867 in the face of the country’s harsh geography and sparse settlement, early Canadian governments could not succumb to dogmatism about market economics. The market alone was not going to connect the embryonic country due to its vast size and clustering of population in a small number of cities. Market forces, for instance, would not have produced a nationwide network of railway infrastructure or cultivated a domestic manufacturing capacity.

The Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist.

Only a national development strategy—involving a combination of public and private investments—could realize these ambitious goals. This is where the need for a limited yet energetic state became crucial in incentivizing, de-risking, and even coordinating private investment and, in so doing, solving the market failures caused by such a massive political geography. The National Policy became the framework for the mix of public policies that formed the basis of such a nation-building agenda.

It is wrong to think that the National Policy in particular and Macdonald’s national developmentalism in general were somehow un-conservative. His state-capacity conservatism may have represented a different conception of the role of government than contemporary libertarian ideas but it has an analogue in America’s own history of national development and frontier political economy.

In a 2004 New York Times column, Canadian-born, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote the following about the evolution of American political ideologies:

Today we have one political tradition, now housed in the Democratic Party, which believes in using government in the name of equality and social justice. We have another tradition, recently housed in the Republican Party, which believes, or says it believes, in restricting the size of government in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. But through much of American history there has always been a third tradition, now dormant, which believes in limited but energetic government in the name of social mobility and national union. 

This third tradition—which Brooks and others would describe as “Hamiltonian” and we’d call “Macdonaldism”—is key to understanding the Canadian conservative tradition. It is neither statist nor egalitarian, neither Burkean nor Lockean. It is a composite ideology that, undoubtedly British influenced, is resolutely North American. It was fundamentally market oriented but saw a role for the state to solve for market failures and incentivize and support certain commercial activities such as railroad expansion and the rise of a manufacturing sector in the name of national development.

This point is worth emphasizing—particularly for readers steeped in contemporary conservative thinking about markets, government, and the limits of state intervention: the Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist. Brian Lee Crowley, for instance, has shown that public expenditures in nineteenth-century Canada were lower, on a per capita basis, than in the United States. Macdonald’s public spending was principally dedicated to major public infrastructure (including subsidizing the building of transportation networks in a low-population-density country) and cultivating a manufacturing capacity due to its economic spillovers. This was not dirigisme. It was an ambitious yet pragmatic political economy programme focused on economic development and national progress. 

Macdonald’s state-capacity conservatism therefore should be viewed as a part of a well-rooted Canadian conservative tradition that was not merely about political exigencies. It reflected a mix of liberal and conservative ideas that came together in the British North American context and found expression in Macdonald’s audacious nation-building ambitions and the political economy programme that ultimately helped to fulfill them.