The contentious debate on affirmative action in higher education is finally headed for the Supreme Court. Last week, the justices agreed to review two cases dealing with the use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions to the University of Michigan—one focused on the undergraduate program, the other on the law school.
Critics charge that affirmative action as practiced by most of America's schools today is simply racism with a progressive face. These policies, they say, not only discriminate by race in blatant violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but insidiously reinforce the stereotype that blacks and Hispanics cannot compete on the same terms as whites and Asians.
Supporters of affirmative action programs say that admitting minority applicants with lower grades and standardized test scores than white applicants who are denied admission is no more unfair than giving preference to athletes or children of alumni.
True, grades and test scores are not the only criteria used in college admissions. But many other factors, such as extracurricular accomplishments or volunteer work, have to do with individual merit. Preferences for children of alumni are a questionable policy that many affirmative action opponents would like to end, since it stacks the deck in favor of those already privileged and mostly protects the colleges' interest in a strong donor base. Still, it is race-based classification of individuals that the law singles out as uniquely pernicious and suspect.
Yet under current policies, race often weighs far more heavily than any other factor. Thus, at the University of Michigan, applicants to the undergraduate program are evaluated by a point system which relies primarily on grades but awards extra points for "other factors." You can get three points for an "outstanding" essay, five for extracurricular achievements or community service—and an automatic 20 bonus points for "underrepresented racial/ethnic minority identification."
At the University of Michigan Law School, the race-conscious criteria are less clearly defined but just as obvious. An African-American applicant's chance of admission is three to 50 times greater than that of a white applicant with similar test scores and college grades.
Originally, affirmative action was explained as a temporary measure to overcome the obstacles posed by racial oppression and social disadvantage. Today, when its beneficiaries are often children of middle-class professionals, a more common argument is that racial and ethnic diversity on campus enriches everyone's learning experience and is thus a "compelling state interest."
The University of Michigan has touted a report by its psychology department chairwoman, Patricia Gurin, purporting to prove the benefits of diversity. But Gurin mostly analyzed the impact of diversity-related activities such as participation in ethnic studies classes—not of actual composition of the student body. The latter, her own data suggest, has no effect on scholastic achievement or civic engagement.
Of course racial integration on college campuses is a worthy goal. Of course the prospect of a sharp decline in the already small percentage of African-Americans in top-tier colleges—which is what happened at the University of California after the repeal of preferences—is disturbing. But racial preferences impose high costs to achieve frequently elusive benefits.
African-American authors such as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter argue that preferences perpetuate the noxious stereotype of intellectual inferiority, sending black youths the message that less is expected of them.
Moreover, while preferences make the campus population more diverse, they also exert a pull toward racial Balkanization. At many schools, "diversity" dogma includes programs that smack of separatism—special minority housing, counseling, and freshman orientation sessions—and often encourage students to develop an identity rooted primarily in race.
The pitfalls of identity politics are illustrated by the contradictory rhetoric about the viewpoints that minorities are said to bring to the classroom. During the 2001 hearings on the University of Michigan Law School case in the US District Court in Detroit, defenders of the school's policy argued that when minority presence is below a "critical mass," minority students feel burdened with having to represent the "black (or Hispanic) point of view." Yet arguments for affirmative action often rest on the premise that minorities do bring a distinct perspective to higher learning, and "diversity activities" aim precisely to inculcate an orthodox minority viewpoint.
If the Supreme Court rejects racial preferences, universities will likely seek other ways to ensure black and Hispanic representation on campus. One can only hope that they will look for genuine solutions that boost educational achievement, rather than politically attractive Band-Aids.