WASHINGTON--In a 1996 referendum, California voters outlawed racial
preferences. Or did they? At the University of California, a lovely
backdoor has been found for beating the ban.
The maneuver appears wholly innocuous. Who, after all, would complain
if UC decided to give the SAT II twice as much weight as the SAT I in
determining college admission? Sure, some people might think it odd. After
all, when standardized tests like SATs are denounced for cultural bias, a
particular animus is reserved for the SAT II (which tests knowledge in
specific subjects such as history, biology and French) on the grounds that
it is more culturally influenced than the SAT (which measures general
reasoning and linguistic ability).
Ah. But the beauty of this odd change is that it gets underqualified
Hispanic students into the University of California system. In one
predominately Hispanic high school, among the worst in the state, reports
The Wall Street Journal, the number of graduates accepted to UC schools
increased by more than 50 percent this year. How did they do it? They aced
the Spanish language SAT II.
Being fluent in Spanish, they breezed through, often without study or
preparation, a test designed to measure (BEG ITAL)second language
acquisition. Despite doing dismally on all the other tests, their
spectacular scores in SAT II Spanish raised their average enough to get
them into the better schools.
Presto. An almost foolproof way to give Hispanics a leg up--and the
latest demonstration of the mindlessness and cynicism that has overtaken
Perhaps the most perverse effect of the SAT change is that it ignores
or, indeed, injures blacks, the group for whom affirmative action was
originally designed. Slots in UCLA's freshman class are a commodity in
fixed supply. For every unqualified Hispanic student to whom you give a
free ride because of a bogus bonus based on nothing but linguistic
accident, you have effectively bumped a qualified student who otherwise
would have been admitted.
Other immigrants, too, get a boost from taking, say, the Chinese or
Korean language SAT II. Who gets boxed out? Anglos and blacks.
Affirmative action was invented to help blacks as redress for the
centuries of state-sponsored slavery and discrimination. But as other
groups--women, Hispanics, Native Americans; the list is ever
expanding--claimed a piece of the grievance pie, affirmative action molted
into ``diversity.'' Diversity is simply the attempt to achieve rainbow
representation for its own sake, without any pretense of redress or
Justice? Consider: Doubling the weight given the SAT II benefits, even
more perversely, newly arrived Hispanics over their more Americanized
cousins. Second- or third-generation kids are far less likely to speak
fluent Spanish. Thus, even within the now-favored Hispanic community, those
who have been here the least amount of time are being awarded gratuitous
advantage over those who have been here the longest.
By any measure of civic equity, the most deserving--those whose
parents and grandparents have for decades contributed to America in skills,
hard work, taxes, and national service--get the least. An English-speaking
third-generation Mexican-American whose grandfather fought in Normandy gets
nothing--in fact, he may even lose his slot at Berkeley to the newly
arrived Guatemalan whose slate as a citizen is still blank.
Why are we doing this? For the shibboleth of diversity. Diversity at
any cost. And the cost is considerable. In order to artificially inflate
the number of Hispanics admitted, the new rule places students who are not
academically prepared in colleges a notch or two above their ability.
The social wreckage created by such mismatches is enormous. Minority
students are set up for failure, when they could have succeeded splendidly
at less advanced institutions. And more advanced students, denied their
opportunity to learn in an appropriate academic setting, are left with deep
ethnic animosities that can last a lifetime.
When affirmative action was about justice, it at least had moral
force. Opponents could argue about the social costs (unfairness, racial
resentment, patronization of minority achievement) but they had to
acknowledge the contrary claims of racial redress. You might disagree that
racial preferences were the best solution, but you had to respect the moral
seriousness of the idea.
But now? What is there to respect in a scheme for giving newly arrived
immigrants a leg up over everyone, including blacks? The SAT ploy is a
sideshow, to be sure, but there is no better illustration of the wretched
state to which affirmative action has sunk than this: A naked spoils system
that under the flag of diversity makes a mockery of the impulse for justice
that once lay at the core of affirmative action.