- Affirmative action: Racial preference in black and white
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on race-conscious admissions practices in higher education, many supporters of those practices have since critiqued the more common defense that stressed the educational benefits of diversity in an attempt to steer other supporters toward a social justice orientation. Legal-minded scholars such as Michael Olivas (forthcoming), Lani Guinier (2003), and Derek Bell (2003) understood well the importance of stressing benefits in a pragmatic legal defense, but they do not characterize the need for and problems related to affirmative action the same way the Court did. Tim Wise, an unflagging advocate for dismantling racism, pumps up the volume of this discussion and does not pull any punches in Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White.
This book is part of the Positions series of books published by Routledge, which interrogate the intersections of education, politics, and culture. Books in this series are supposed to merge scholarship with politically engaged criticism in a short and accessibly written manner. If these are the goals, then Wise fully delivers and would make Italian cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci proud. The book is organized to send an unqualified message: "affirmative action remains important and necessary because racism remains prevalent and damaging to the life prospects of people of color in the United States" (p. 164). If you do not get this final analysis by the time you finish reading the book, perhaps you can knock yourself over the head with it. In other words, this book is that forceful, relentless, and convincing.
The first chapter makes a case for why affirmative action or deliberate efforts to improve the representation of people of color continue to be necessary. Similar to critics of affirmative action, Wise also centers on "racial preferences," but unlike his counterparts, Wise is primarily concerned that affirmative action has not done enough to root out white racial preference and privilege. He argues that whites have historically been and continue to be the primary beneficiaries of racial preference in obtaining jobs, contracting, and housing. He adds that racial preference for whites in the larger economy, combined with the cumulative effects of longstanding racial discrimination, has resulted in a cyclical intergenerational pattern, whereby prior economic advantage has produced educational advantage, which in turn reproduces economic dominance for whites.
In chapter 2, Wise specifies the mechanisms ingrained in the American educational system that reinforce racial preferences for whites. Here, he addresses preexisting family advantage, funding disparities in schools, ability tracking, classroom dynamics and norms, color blindness, and "mainstream" multiculturalism, among other topics. The evidence presented points to a litany of educational advantages that better prepare white students for applying to and then enrolling in college. Wise argues that it is against this backdrop of white racial preference that an honest assessment of affirmative action can really be made.
Wise saves his most critical words for chapter 3, where he responds to critics of affirmative action. His discussion focuses squarely on higher education, and [End Page 930] he analyzes the University of Michigan admissions cases, standardized testing, and Asians as a "model minority." Given Wise's orientation, his conclusions on those three topics are predictable; reverse discrimination is a myth fueled by white hysteria; meritocracy is a fallacy; and the model minority characterization of Asians is a cynical, divisive, and deceptive tactic. Besides showing his solid grasp of the weightiest race-related issues in higher education, what is most striking about chapter 3 is that Wise expresses his opinions with attitude and comes as close to "trash-talking" in academic circles as most of us will ever see. For example, regarding the Center for Equal Opportunity's report that unfair preferences were given to blacks, Wise states that their argument is "demonstrably absurd and the height of statistical illiteracy" (p. 92). Regarding charges that blacks are "over their heads at selective colleges" because they tend to graduate at the bottom of their class, Wise asks, "What do you call someone who graduates last in his class at...