Race to the Top?

Is positive discrimination on the basis of race a proper remedy for centuries of negative discrimination on the basis of race?

The latest front in this more than 40-year-old battle is the University of Texas, which has been sued for an affirmative action policy that gives weight to a person’s race in admissions. The case has now gone to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments this week.

Arguing against the university’s admissions policy was attorney Bert Rein, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, asserted that “large numbers of Latinos and blacks were admitted as top high school graduates” already. Defending the policy was U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. who argued, as the Times summarized it, that “college officials should be allowed the flexibility to design admissions policies that bring a diverse group of students to their campuses.”

Peter Drucker wrote quite a lot about race, and in his later career he often stressed dramatic improvement in the standing of black Americans. “If anyone around 1960, in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration and the beginning of the Kennedy presidency, had predicted the gains the American black would make in the next 10 or 15 years, he would have been dismissed as an unrealistic visionary, if not insane,” Drucker wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Never in recorded history has there been a greater change in the status of a social group within a shorter time.”

U.S. Supreme Court Building circa 1939. Image source: U.S. Library of Congress

However, as Drucker saw it, this very progress had created a split among liberals when it came to affirmative action. “The white liberal . . . has come to feel that the blacks increasingly are no longer ‘deprived,’ no longer entitled to special treatment such as reverse discrimination, no longer in need of special allowances and priority in employment, in promotion, and so on,” Drucker wrote.

About his own views on the subject Drucker was less direct, though he did once suggest that “even . . . educated American blacks are themselves members of a disadvantaged group.”

At the same time, Drucker cautioned that any institution can run into trouble when it takes on a cause beyond its core focus. “Whenever a ‘social responsibility’ of any of these institutions—the university, the business, the labor union, the hospital—is being invoked, the first question has to be: Will it impair the institution’s capacity to perform?” he wrote in The New Realities. “We may well decide that the social good outweighs the sacrifice in performance. But it is dangerous, it is indeed irresponsible, not to ask the question or to pretend that it is irrelevant.”

Do you think affirmative action is needed today?  Why or why not?