- - Monday, May 30, 2022

For generations now, Black Americans have lagged — oftentimes, significantly — behind other racial and ethnic groups in multiple measures of socioeconomic achievement. By some estimates when compared to white Americans, for example, the Black poverty rate is more than twice as high and Black students at public colleges are 250% less likely to graduate.

So, in light of this troubling reality, do Black Americans need special treatment to succeed? 

This was the question posed to me at this month’s Old Parkland Conference in Dallas sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institution and Manhattan Institute. It was a conference hosted by Glenn Loury, Jason Riley, Ian Rowe and Shelby Steele to revive the discussion started at the 1980 Fairmont Conference, convened by economist Thomas Sowell, on how to address persistent Black underachievement. 

Because of its 40-plus-year history of purportedly benefitting Black Americans and its current challenge at the Supreme Court, I was asked to discuss whether affirmative action was the solution. In short, my answer was no. 

First of all, affirmative action has never, legally speaking, been endorsed to benefit Black college applicants. The Supreme Court has long held that schools may consider the race or ethnicity of an applicant to promote on its campus the educational benefits that allegedly flow from diversity. In other words, schools are permitted to favor the darker skin pigmentation of applicants for the educational benefit of white students. 

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s approval of this practice, it is illegal pursuant to the plain language of the law, it is immoral, and it harms everyone, especially Black and brown Americans. 

In study after study after study, it has been shown that the results of affirmative action have been almost wholly bad for those it is intended to boost. It should be obvious that when massive preferences are given to applicants whose academic credentials do not come close to parity with other applicants that these students will struggle in many ways. Indeed, students who receive these preferences have difficulty keeping pace academically or coping psychologically, and drop out, change majors from “hard sciences” like physics to “soft sciences” like sociology, and take longer to graduate in disproportionate numbers. That is to say, one must look past college admission to the longer-term effects of affirmative action for a fuller picture. 

The literature abounds with the harms that affirmative action has wrought for Black and brown people — if one is willing to look for it. At the end of the day, we may well have had more Black doctors, lawyers and scientists in the absence of race preferences because students would have attended schools where they were academically qualified and thus, had less reason to abandon their initial fields of study. That is, in the absence of this “special treatment,” Black people are more likely to have gained ground. 

Truly, with a “friend” like affirmative action who needs enemies? 

But yet, the question remains: Do Blacks need special treatment to succeed? In reflecting on my own life, I have come to the belief that success is achieved less by special treatment and more by special sauce. 

My biracial siblings and I were raised in the American South by our poor, high school-educated single mother. We have never known our father who, to this day, is incarcerated because of drug addiction-fueled crimes. We witnessed alcoholism, domestic violence and more. 

Clearly, the odds weren’t rooting for me. Why then did I graduate high school when neither my sister nor my brother did? Why did I enlist in the U.S. Navy and go on to earn college degrees while my brother went to prison and my sister was raising her son as a single, teenaged mother? Too often we study failure when studying success might be more enlightening. 

I believe three things changed my statistical trajectory: school fit, delaying college and meaningful experiences. 

By school fit, I mean sending children to the schools where they can best flourish socially and intellectually to be their best individual selves — not simply sending them to zip code-assigned schools. School choice may very well lead to a better education for children but, more importantly, in my view, the proper fit for the child will help them to develop in their own individual way. 

Second, college is not for everybody. It wasn’t for me at first. Our government and other influential institutions have done great harm to more than a generation of Americans — many of them Black — by suggesting that college is the singular path to success. It ain’t so, and we ought not to continue to repeat that destructive mantra and further stigmatize other paths to achievement such as in the trades. 

Finally, when a child is the victim of intergenerational poverty, as I was, their world is very small. Theoretically, there is more out there but practically there only exists their block, street or neighborhood. By sheer dumb luck, I was afforded simple but meaningful experiences such as being taught to fish and learning to lay the footing of a house that expanded my worldview and gave me confidence in and respect for myself. This is replicable. 

If we would merely follow the recipe for success, I am confident we would see not just Black Americans but all citizens benefiting from this special sauce for achievement. 

• Devon Westhill is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. 

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