Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Turning Marcuse on his Head: The Repressive Tolerance of the Discontents

By   Telos

Characterizing a concept as a goal is a misleading way to approach a critique. At best, it tries to imply a teleological argument. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that is a play on words.) In actuality here, it subsumes the normative argument under its instrumental implementation. As I noted in my previous commentary, the real story is being lost within the prism of an abstract liberalism that refracts the spectrum of colors back into a singular light. So let’s look at that light.

What is the goal of affirmative action? That isn’t really made clear by its critics. Like most cases in these situations, it becomes an all-encompassing buzzword to connote some kind of progressive agenda that they believe infringes on civil liberties. What is made clear is that they don’t like what is alleged to be its methods, in the case before us, racial classifications. But is this really what’s it all about, Alfie? There lies the rub. Those advocates who are prosecuting affirmative action before the Court, and those who cheer them on, are arguing for a decision that allows the justifiable use of racial profiles to infiltrate the admissions game. But before we let loose the dialectic of enlightenment, let’s get the story straight.

What is at issue here in the current so-called affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court? The irony is that it has nothing to do with racial preferences, but everything to do with racial biases. What the Harvard case is actually about is the profiling that takes place within the admissions game. As Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen has pointed out in her New Yorker blog piece (“The Supreme Court’s Troubled Treatment of Asian Americans,” November 6, 2022), “the practice of race-conscious admissions is not what has limited the number of Asian American students; it is instead the parts of the process in which Harvard claims not to think about race at all.” A huge factor in Harvard’s admission process is the personal rating assigned by admission’s officers, based on their own subjective judgments of the candidate’s personality and character. Supposedly, this allows them to override the system of checking boxes, look beyond quantitative measures, and use their own subjective evaluations of the candidates’ materials to determine their place in a Harvard class. It’s presumed that here is where preferential racial treatment is assigned. But apparently something else is at work. Admissions records showed that despite the high scores given Asian Americans in most of the categories of the admission process, including alumni interviews, “admissions officers, who normally did not meet with applicants, gave Asians the lowest personal ratings [in their character assessments] of any racial group.” So you have to ask yourself: what is going on? The problem with the case is not that Blacks and other underrepresented minorities are being given preferential treatment because of their race; it’s that admissions officers and administrators appear to be applying categorical judgments about Asian Americans. So is the problem racial categorization or racial profiling? Is the racism in the use of race or in the subjective application of character traits to various ethnic and racial groups? It appears the great social progress we’ve made in our society on matters of race hasn’t seeped into the minds of the people running Harvard’s admissions office. (This also begs the question, has anyone looked into the demographic and educational background of Harvard admissions officers?)

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