Civil Rights

The high price of racial preferences

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On Monday, the US Supreme Court let stand an appellate ruling that held that racial preferences at public colleges and universities in Texas amounted to illegal race discrimination. But that's hardly the end of this issue, which arouses strong passions on both sides. Two other cases dealing with similar policies at the University of Michigan may soon be headed for the high court.

While the plaintiffs in the court challenges to affirmative action are whites claiming reverse discrimination, the intellectual arguments have focused more on the harm affirmative action in its present form may be doing to its original goals of racial equality.

Affirmative action supporters accuse the other side of peddling myths about quotas and lowered standards. Schools, they assert, simply consider race as a "plus factor" in selecting applicants—just like geographical origin, community service, or special talents. But such claims are contradicted by the evidence.

At the University of Michigan, applicants to the undergraduate program are evaluated by a point system which emphasizes grades and gives additional points for "other factors." An "outstanding" essay gets three points; up to five can be given for extracurricular achievements or "leadership and service"; "underrepresented racial/ethnic minority identification" earns 20 points.

Indeed, defenders of racial preferences implicitly acknowledge the centrality of race when they warn that color-blind policies would cause minority enrollment at top universities and professional schools to plummet—as it did at the University of California a few years ago.

In a nation that embraces the ideals of equality yet has a shameful history of racism, no person with a conscience can be unperturbed by the scarcity of African-Americans in our elite schools. Racial and ethnic diversity is a desirable goal. But the attempt to achieve it through preferences carries a high price.

The argument that racial preferences stigmatize their intended beneficiaries, sending them a none-too-subtle message that they can't compete with members of other groups, has been made by a number of African-American men and women—most recently John McWhorter, a linguist at Berkeley, in his book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America."

McWhorter's concern is with the educational underachievement of black Americans, which cannot be explained primarily by economic disadvantage or racism.

The culprit, in his view, is a "cultural disconnect" from learning—a product of internalized racist stereotypes of mental inferiority combined with distrust toward the values of the dominant culture.

"If a culture is saddled with a legacy of racism that makes it distrust school, the last thing you want is a policy that doesn't expect the best of its young people," says McWhorter.

Exposed to the harsh light of glasnost, racial preferences in education are withering. Such policies are already prohibited by the courts in Texas and by voter initiatives in California and Washington.

Already, bans on racial preferences have spurred a quest for alternative ways to admit more minority students, from dropping SAT tests to "percent solutions" under which state universities must admit all high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class (as the law now mandates in Texas).

However, the SAT is still the best predictor of college performance. And "percent solutions" force universities to admit students from shoddy schools who are unprepared for college-level work. McWhorter believes that the only real solutions are long-term ones—boosting the achievement of black and Hispanic children from kindergarten onward.

What about short-term alternatives? Glenn Loury, a black conservative economist who has recently broken ranks with his ideological comrades, partly over affirmative action, now supports race-conscious remedies as long as they aim to improve performance—whether it's special summer courses or admission of black students to a state university conditional on their raising their academic scores to competitive levels after studying at a local community college.

If racially exclusive, such efforts would still raise legal and moral questions. Still, this model of affirmative action would at least encourage achievement rather than condone underachievement.