Former Foe of Affirmative Action Backs Policy in Michigan Case

By Daniel Treiman

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.
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During the 1970s, the neoconservative sociologist Nathan Glazer was one of affirmative action’s leading critics.

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to hand down a decision this month determining the future of affirmative action in university admissions, Glazer has signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief along with six other social scientists defending the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies.

“I have definitely come to the conclusion that strict colorblindness is unrealistic and probably inadvisable,” Glazer, now 80 and a professor emeritus of education at Harvard University, told the Forward.

Glazer wrote the seminal 1975 anti-affirmative action book “Affirmative Discrimination,” which criticized government-mandated affirmative action in employment. At the time, Glazer said, he felt that such policies contradicted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would lead to “balkanization” and were “unnecessary.”

While Glazer had explained his change of heart in 1998 in a much discussed New Republic article, his signing onto the brief appears to be his first concrete step into the realm of activism on behalf of affirmative action.

Glazer said he was asked to sign onto the social scientists’ brief by Glenn Loury, a Boston University economist and prominent black former conservative who had his own high-profile change of heart on affirmative action. The brief critiques so-called “percentage plans” in which public universities in states such as California, Texas and Florida that have ended affirmative action guarantee admission to top graduates of every high school, which the Bush administration, in its brief opposing the University of Michigan’s policies, touted as race-neutral alternatives that can promote diversity without resorting to color-conscious preferences. The social scientists’ brief, however, argues that such plans, because they aim to promote racial diversity, are “not truly race-neutral” and are also less effective and more disruptive than policies that simply take race into account directly.

“The battle over affirmative action today is a contest between a clear principle on the one hand and a clear reality on the other,” Glazer wrote in his 1998 New Republic article. “The principle is that ability, qualifications, and merit, independent of race, national origin, or sex should prevail when one applies for a job or promotion, or for entry into selective institutions for higher education, or when one bids for contracts. The reality is that strict adherence to this principle would result in few African Americans getting jobs, admissions, and contracts.”

He told the Forward his own policy preference would be for affirmative action to be essentially reserved for blacks, given “how they’ve been treated” historically and “their present inability to qualify for the more selective institutions in substantial numbers.”

Like many of the original generation of Jewish neoconservatives, Glazer emerged from the pre-World War II radical political milieu of New York’s City College, later becoming a frequent contributor to publications such as Commentary and The Public Interest, which he co-edited from 1973 to 2002 with leading neoconservative Irving Kristol.

In the 1970s, the issue of affirmative action “played a role in creating neoconservatism, in demonstrating a kind of excess in liberal positions,” Glazer said. He attributed the larger Jewish opposition to affirmative action to a “basic liberal position against identification on the base of race,” as well as discomfort with admissions quotas — which, though then intended to increase minority enrollments, evoked the specter of earlier efforts by universities to suppress Jewish enrollment.

Today, while conservative groups are still challenging affirmative action policies, for the country as a whole, Glazer said, affirmative action is no longer as much of a hot-button issue as it once was, “in part because we’ve lived with it so long.”

This, he says, is true for Jews as well.

When the Supreme Court last took up the issue of affirmative action in university admissions in the 1978 Bakke case, Jewish groups lined up to oppose the policy in question. At the time, affirmative action “seemed much more alarming. One never knew how far it would go; it was new,” he said. “That was 25 years ago and it isn’t as if one detects a great harm to the Jewish community or ambitions of Jews for higher education from it.”

The high court, however, struck down the policy at issue in Bakke, which essentially set aside admissions slots for minority students. Today’s affirmative action policies, such as those at the University of Michigan — where black and Hispanic undergraduate applicants are given an additional 20 points on a scale of 150 points — are more acceptable to many Jewish groups. Indeed, several Jewish groups signed onto an American Jewish Committee brief defending the University of Michigan’s policies, with only the Anti-Defamation League filing a brief in opposition.

Glazer may have made his uneasy peace with affirmative action, but many neoconservatives remain staunch foes of racial preferences. In February, The Weekly Standard, edited by Irving Kristol’s son William, criticized the Bush administration’s brief for not arguing that the use of racial preferences to achieve diversity is inherently unconstitutional: “We had hoped the administration might challenge the diversity rationale by exposing its creepy underlying assumption (namely, that students should not be considered as individuals but as interchangeable members of their racial groups) and by showing that it is a recipe for never-ending discrimination.”

While Glazer says he hopes the high court will allow schools to continue to employ racial preferences to promote diversity, he is clearly somewhat ambivalent about this rather general rationale, focused as he is on the specific plight of blacks. “If you want a diversity rationale, then why don’t you worry about Finns or Swedes?” he asked.

Glazer, however, is forthright in stating that his views are shaped not by legal questions so much as by “what is good public policy, what will lead to a harmonious society in terms of the relation among the races.”

There is also a strain of conservatism that has remained with Glazer throughout his evolution on affirmative action. In the 1970s his critique was focused on government-imposed affirmative action mandates (which he continues to oppose), while today, he expresses support for the voluntary affirmative action programs undertaken by universities and employers, and says he hopes the justices of the Supreme Court will not mandate colorblindness across the board.

“I would like them to give some room for the autonomy of university, and college and professional school admissions practice,” he said. “In other words, I think that they should say diversity may be one ground, but that autonomy is also a value.”

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