Civil Liberties

Upholding Racial Division

Racial preferences remain; so does racial inequality.


Last week's Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action was eagerly awaited by opponents of racial preferences, and nervously anticipated by their defenders. The split decision struck down the affirmative action program in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan but upheld the less quota-like system at the University of Michigan Law School, surprising many observers—and greatly disappointing those who expected the court to uphold the principle of colorblind merit.

Supporters of race-based affirmative action in college admissions have long argued that race is used only as a "plus" factor in selecting applicants, along with many other nonacademic factors. The undergraduate admissions program at the University of Michigan rather blatantly put the lie to this pretense. Applicants were rated on a 150-point scale in which they could receive up to five points for "personal achievement" or for "leadership and service"—and an automatic 20 points for belonging to an "underrepresented racial/ethnic minority." Call it a quota or something else, but it's certainly a rigid by-the-numbers system in which race is one key criterion.

In declaring this system to be illegal while leaving intact the softer, more flexible program at the law school, the court seemed to reaffirm a commitment to diversity without quotas. But what is it exactly that the court upheld?

During the litigation over the law school's affirmative action program, experts for the plaintiff presented evidence that applicants from some minority groups were "given an extremely large allowance for admission. With racial considerations, an African-American candidate is at least three times more likely to be accepted than a white or Asian candidate with a similar academic record. Indeed, the law school's own expert, Dr. Stephen Raudenbush, effectively admitted as much when he testified at the trial in the US District Court that abolishing affirmative action would have "dramatic" negative effects on minority admissions.

In 2000, for instance, underrepresented minorities (mainly blacks and Latinos) made up about 14 percent of the entering class at the law school. Under race-neutral standards, Raudenbush said, that number would have dropped to about 4 percent. Clearly, race is not just one factor among many but, in many cases, the decisive factor. Just because no extra points are being explicitly awarded for race doesn't make the policy any less discriminatory. As a friend of mine put it, "In effect, the court has ruled that it's all right for a committee but not a computer program to discriminate."

Unlike some critics of racial preferences, I do not believe that race-conscious policies intended to help those burdened by a history of discrimination and prejudice are just as immoral as race-conscious policies intended to perpetuate the oppression. However, aside from the issue of fairness to those who are passed over, there is the much-debated question of whether racial preferences harm their intended beneficiaries. Much has been said about the educational benefits of "diversity." But, while preferences undoubtedly make the campus population more diverse, they may also exert a pull toward racial division rather than integration. At many schools, the commitment to "diversity" includes programs that smack of separatism—special minority housing, counseling, separate freshman orientation sessions and workshops—and often encourage students to develop an identity rooted primarily in race.

Do preferential admissions contribute to these tensions? John McWhorter, an African-American writer and the author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, believes so. "Black students often suspect that white students feel that they got in through affirmative action—which they often did," McWhorter says. "One way to reduce balkanization would be if black students all got into school for the same reason as everybody else."

McWhorter also believes that racial preferences help perpetuate the very gap in scholastic achievement that they are meant to make up for. Blacks and Hispanics get the insidious message that not much is expected of them. (In their 1998 book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, declare that the performance of minority students admitted to top schools due to affirmative action cannot be considered "disappointing"—despite a large racial gap in grades.) In McWhorter's view, this subtle message reinforces the tendency among African-Americans to regard achievement in school as "acting white."

In the Supreme Court's majority ruling, Sandra Day O'Connor suggested that in 25 years, racial preferences could be phased out as no longer needed. Perhaps. But for that to happen, there has to be an honest discussion of the achievement gap and a concerted effort to overcome it.