The University of Michigan employed an undergraduate admissions policy that was openly and unapologetically racist. So said the U.S. Supreme Court today, when it announced that the university's undergraduate admissions process, which gave significant weight to applicant's skin color, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This is a good thing.
When I was a senior in high school, I received several scholarship offers. My father flatly refused each one. His reasoning was straightforward - scholarship money should be left to the economically deprived. And since he could pay for my schooling, he did.
What I think my father meant, but was perhaps too stern to say, was that one should always rely on hard work and personal striving to carry the day - every day.
Sadly, this rousing point seems lost on the admission board at the University of Michigan, which discriminated on the basis of skin color. The university ranked applicants on a scale that awarded points for SAT scores, high school grades and ethnicity. For example, a perfect SAT score was worth 12 points. Being black corralled 20 points. As President Bush observed, "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes perspective students, based solely on their race."
Supporters maintained that the quota system is essential to creating a diverse student body. And indeed, there is some validity to this sort of thinking. A shared history of slavery and discrimination has ingrained racial hierarchies into our national identity.
However, the majority of people taking advantage of affirmative action systems already have the wherewithal to get into a good college. Meanwhile, the most needy fall by the wayside.
The root problem is that most impoverished people have their sense of future possibilities crushed out of them from a young age. In poor, urban schools across the country, minority students are failing to learn basic skills in early grades. 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. If the students reach high school unable to read and understand the material, they see little reason to stick around. Not surprisingly then, nearly twice as many black Americans drop out of high school as white students.
These are the people affirmative action needs to be helping - those poor minority students who are conditioned to believe that they have no chance at achieving the American dream. By the time these kids reach high school it is too late for them to take advantage of affirmative action because they have already given up.
Instead, the ones using affirmative action to gain admittance to colleges are the suburban bourgeois. For them, affirmative action has become an entitlement. I'll never forget a speaking engagement I had at Harvard where a wild pack of rich kids told me that they are owed affirmative action to make up for the horrible crime of slavery.
I couldn't help asking these "victims" how much they pay a year for their Harvard education.
"$35,000 a year," responded a student.
I shook my head incredulously. "What precisely about your $35,000 a year education has taught you to believe that you are a victim? I mean, why even go to college if you are already defeated?"
The question went unanswered but the implication was clear - the sort of affirmative action being used by college admissions boards rarely benefits the least among us. Instead, it benefits middle- and upper-class black Americans who have been conditioned to feel they are owed retribution. It's a bourgeois boondoggle that sidesteps individual need in favor of social retribution. I believe their exists a very real danger in embracing the need for affirmative action as some sort of all-encompassing entitlement that reduces all members of a race, sex, etc. to victims. Owed? Victims, all of us? That's not progress, its inertia.
Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the University of Michigan policy will belie a change in the way we apply affirmative action. Perhaps now affirmative action will be used to benefit the needy. That means breaking apart those conditions that con many young minorities into feeling trapped, despondent and without a future.
Create an affirmative action plan that addresses the needs of minorities while they are still young, and it may just achieve progress.