The Supreme Court is poised to decide whether or not the University of Michigan can continue to treat skin color as more important than test scores. Right now, the school has a system that rates applicants out of a possible 150 points. Typically, a prospective student would need about 100 points to get in. A perfect SAT score counts for 12 points. Being black, Hispanic or Native American earns you 20 points.
Being Arab, Asian, Jewish or just plain ol' white earns you nada. Of course, "earns" is a funny word here, since being born with a certain skin color isn't really work.
Anyway, the University of Michigan denies this system constitutes a quota system. But that's absurd. The school says it needs critical mass of minority enrollment in each class of at least 10 percent. Well, if you keep lowering the standards for select minority groups until you hit a numerical target, you are meeting a quota.
Michigan also insists that this system is not merely necessary but vital because it is the only way to maintain and promote "diversity." And, as we've all heard oh-so-many times: Diversity makes for better education, better citizens and better schools. Diversity is strength.
I guess I believe that. Mutts, as a rule, are healthier than purebreds (and, if my dog Cosmo is any indication, mutts are simply better, too). Diversified portfolios are more immune to market shocks than portfolios with just one stock in them.
People with diverse backgrounds tend to be able to handle things better than people who've lived cloistered lives. And, I guess, all things being equal, schools and universities with a diverse student body are better off than schools that are nearly all white, all black, all Christian or all Jewish.
But wait a second. Black civil rights groups -the ones who tout the importance of diversity the most -lavish praise on and raise money for historically all-black schools. Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP, is a graduate of all-black Morehouse College, and not many people would say he's a deficient person for having graduated from such a non-diverse college. Meanwhile, feminist groups, another faction deeply committed to diversity, revere the few remaining all-women's colleges.
So even the biggest champions of diversity understand that diversity isn't everything. It's good, but not super-duper important. Otherwise, the National Organization for Women would be determined to integrate men into Smith College and the NAACP would be demanding that Howard University reach out to more white students.
Indeed, it wasn't too long ago that diversity was a pretty minor concern. In the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell wrote that while the University of California's system of reserving some slots solely for blacks was unconstitutional, race could arguably get special consideration in order to further diversity that promotes "speculation, experiment and creation."
Before that case, diversity was one of dozens of arguments in favor of affirmative action. Advocates of quota systems really only cared about offering special help for blacks -as a reparation for slavery and Jim Crow -than about creating an educationally rich environment on college campuses. But since diversity was the only constitutionally permissible excuse for quota systems, they jumped on it. An added bonus was that "diversity" is so amorphous it serves as an all-purpose tool for administrators to pick students of whatever hue suits their fancy.
Now, I have no doubt that diversity mongers believe their own rhetoric and think diversity is fantastic stuff. But it's hard to believe that they really think diversity -rather than special treatment for certain boutique minorities -is the most important consideration, because they're willing to bend the rules for certain racial minorities and not for others.
And, ultimately, that's the problem. I don't mind affirmative action as it was originally conceived. In fact, I'm all for it. If the University of Michigan wants to recruit and advertise in black communities disproportionately to all others, I say good for them. I could even see giving special financial help to minorities, since they tend to come disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. But lowering the standards -not even a little, but a lot -is unacceptable.
Quota proponents argue that schools give special treatment to children of alumni or from faraway geographic regions, so why not race? I'll tell you why. Race is special. Race is the American dilemma. Race fueled the Civil War, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Race gave birth to the civil rights movement, which, we are constantly told, was the most moral force in the history of America.
They were fighting for a world where blacks and whites would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The University of Michigan should fight for that, too.