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Affirmative action policy remains a contentious issue in public debate despite public endorsement by America’s leading institutions and validation by the United States Supreme Court. But the decades old disagreement is mired in an unproductive rhetorical stalemate marked by entrenched ideology rather than healthy dialogue. Instead of evolving, racial dialogue about the relevance of race in university admissions and hiring decisions is trapped in a cycle of resentment.

In this article, I argue that the stagnation of race preference discourse arises because the basic rhetorical themes advanced by opponents have evolved little over 150 years since the racial reform efforts following the Civil War. Nineteenth-century opponents to the Freedmen’s Bureau, Negro citizenship, and Reconstruction era proposals deployed a host of arguments that bear a striking family resemblance to the modern arguments against race preferences. Rhetorical themes advanced by opponents in modern race preference discourse therefore generate resentment and skepticism among proponents because of this odious nineteenth-century pedigree, leading to a conversational impasse.

A deepened understanding of this rhetorical pedigree is crucial to restoring public conversation on race preferences. Opponents of race preferences must understand that this pedigree taints the underlying merit of their arguments. Concurrently, proponents must recognize that the advancement of these themes does not automatically signal agreement with nineteenth-century conservative racial norms. Through acknowledgement and understanding, we can stop the retreat into traditional ideologies and meet in the middle for a renewed and meaningful discussion of race preferences.

This article begins by discussing four dominant rhetorical themes deployed by opponents in the modern race preference debate, and compares and contrasts those modern arguments with their nineteenth-century counterparts. Next, I discuss the effects of the prevailing modern theme and motivations driving modern policy positions. Finally, I argue that racial progress demands continued dialogue and offer how public conversation on race preferences ought to proceed in the wake of these revelations.

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