The Supreme Court this week took up a case that just might put an end to race-based college admissions. The justices heard arguments Wednesday involving an affirmative action program, at the University of Texas, whose whole purpose seems to be to give special preference to black and Hispanic applicants who come from middle-income and affluent homes.
Long past are the days when affirmative action proponents could argue they were simply trying to help disadvantaged minorities, much less actual victims of discrimination. Now, the rallying cry is simply to bolster the number of black and Hispanic students on campus -- even if it means denying admission to better-qualified white and Asian students who also happen to be more economically disadvantaged than the favored minorities.
The University of Texas affirmative action program is one of the most egregious in the nation. It is also unnecessary as the university boasts one of the country's most racially and ethnically diverse student bodies, with over half the students non-white.
In 1996, Texas adopted a race-neutral program aimed at increasing diversity in the state university system. The policy guaranteed admission to the state university to any student who graduated within the top 10 percent of his or her high school class. The purpose was to ensure that high-performing students from low-income schools would have access to the state's best public higher education. It worked remarkably well to increase the number of black and Hispanic students. By 2004, 21 percent of the incoming freshmen were black or Hispanic and 18 percent were Asian.
But the university's obsession with creating even more "diversity," led it to adopt a race-conscious preference to ensure that blacks and Hispanics who didn't graduate in the top 10 percent of their class would also be given preferences. The result was a small boost in the number of blacks and Hispanics admitted -- but most of these preferences went to privileged minorities.
The beneficiaries were no longer disadvantaged minority kids who had attended underperforming schools but middle-class and even wealthy students who went to integrated, often suburban or private schools.
Several of the justices at Wednesday's arguments voiced incredulity at the need for such a preference for the privileged. Justice Samuel Alito posed a hypothetical to the university's attorney involving an applicant whose parents "have income that puts them in the top 1% of earners in the country. They deserve a leg-up against, let's say, an Asian or a white applicant whose parents are absolutely average in terms of education and income?" he asked. The attorney's response was that these students bring "different experiences" from those of disadvantaged blacks or Hispanics.
Well, yes -- affluent blacks and Hispanics share more in common with their affluent white peers than they do with other blacks and Hispanics who are poor. And that's the point. Why should they be given special preference in college admission when they already benefit from a privileged upbringing?
It has been nearly ten years since the Supreme Court wrestled with the thorny issue of racial preferences in higher education. Last time around, in the 2003 University of Michigan law school case Grutter v. Bollinger, the court kicked the can down the road, upholding racial preferences by a 5-4 decision.
In her majority opinion for the court, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today," referring to increasing diversity. But the effect of that opinion was not only to prolong preferences long after they served their original purpose but also to extend their rational to benefit even wealthy kids solely on the basis of the color of their skin.
In every state that has abandoned the use of racial preferences in college admission -- California, most prominently -- the number of black and Hispanic students attending universities has actually gone up. The difference is these students are now attending colleges where their academic skills are the same as their non-minority peers. Instead of being admitted to selective schools where they struggle to compete with better-prepared students, they attend colleges where they are on an equal academic footing with everyone else. The effect has been to boost the graduation rate of blacks and Hispanics -- which should be the aim of true affirmative action in the first place.
The justices now have the opportunity to undo the harm race preferences have caused not only white and Asian students passed over for admission because of their skin color, but also the intended black and Hispanic beneficiaries who've been harmed as much as helped by these programs. We don't need another 15 years of racial preferences -- especially those that help the most privileged blacks and Hispanics.