The University of Michigan employs an admissions process that openly and unapologetically benefits minorities. Opponents decry the policy as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Bill of Rights (drawing specific attention to the Equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment). As one school administrator put it, "It's evil. It's not meant to be evil, but it's fundamentally wrong in a good society. That's what we always believed. Treat the races without discriminating on the basis of skin color." By contrast, proponents defend the policy on the grounds that it increases ethnic diversity, thus creating a more conducive learning environment.
In April 2003, the Supreme Court will decide which side is right - or at least constitutionally correct. On this decision, the future of affirmative action turns.
In the meantime, the battle continues to be fought on op-ed pages across the country. Sensible people everywhere agree that it is unacceptable to segregate our learning institutions along racial lines. The evidence is also pretty compelling that removing racial quotas causes ethnic enrollment to decrease in major universities. So, how do we best achieve diversity in higher education, without disregarding the equal protection and principles of equality afforded by the Bill of Rights?
Perhaps a good place to start would be to attack the problem not at college enrollment centers, but at the grade-school level where poor, urban students - mostly of color - are lagging behind the rest of the country. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading. Another recent study released by the Manhattan Institute and The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), found that 44 percent of African-American students and 46 percent of Latino students drop out of high school, compared to just 22 percent of white students.
This is plainly a matter of social conditioning. After all, our social roles are carefully taught to us. A poor, minority child is stuck in an overcrowded class. All around him he sees the crude and vulgar testaments to urban life - gang symbols spray painted on the school walls, metal detectors, violence. Academic failure is accepted, customary. Through observation, he will learn that this is normal. He will adapt accordingly. There is a logical progression. A lack of elementary education equals a lack of higher education for America's poor black and Hispanic populations. That, in turn, equals a racial achievement gap that spawns ugly stereotypes about how minorities are lazy and unintelligent.
Such are the disastrous consequences of trapping low-income families, mostly of color, in educational systems without meaningful options.
You want to achieve diversity in higher education? Then break the cycle of conditioning at the grade-school level. Rather than focusing on the admission process for institutions of higher learning, we need to make sure that the elementary education system offers solutions. That means breaking apart those conditions that con young minorities into feeling trapped, despondent and without a future. We need to direct these efforts at disadvantaged elementary students because the sad fact is that, by the time most poor, urban students reach high school, their sense of future possibilities has already been ripped to shreds. Most of all, we need to consider the public education system in poor urban neighborhoods as something other than unalterable. That means embracing true change of the school voucher variety, rather than simply pushing a few students through college doors because of the color of their skin.
Accomplish this, and the result might just be - dare we dream - an education system that increases diversity in higher education, without violating the Constitution and without presuming that all blacks are victims. We may even be able to move beyond those initial steps of the civil rights movement.