The fog of affirmative action

Posted: Jan 21, 2003 12:00 AM
Selective colleges like the University of Michigan practice a blatant form of racial preference, yet they attempt to obscure this truth with all their might. Race, they insist, is only one factor among many they consider when evaluating each individual applicant. Sometimes, as in Michigan's case, it takes a Freedom of Information request to get at the truth (one professor who opposes affirmative action was forced to take that route). The two cases brought by the Center for Individual Rights (< ahref=""> against the University of Michigan now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court have further thrust this uncomfortable subject to the fore. Though the university altered its admission guidelines after the initiation of these suits, the basic outlines have not changed. There is one set of standards for Native Americans, Hispanics and African-Americans, and another for everyone else. Under the 1995 criteria, anyone in the majority pool who did not achieve a GPA of at least 3.2 and ACT/SAT scores above 23 and 950 was automatically rejected. But for the named minorities, GPAs of 2.6 and ACT/SAT scores of 18 or 820 were sufficient to gain admission. One of the questions to ask proponents of affirmative action is: When will it end? Affirmative action was initially conceived and justified as a remedy for past discrimination. African-Americans would be offered a discount ticket into the middle class as partial payback for the damage done over hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination. Today, most African-Americans are in the middle class. Only about one in four black families was poor in 1996. Officials from the University of Michigan try to obscure this reality by pointing to the "poorly served" inner-city communities. But children from those neighborhoods are not the blacks who wind up at Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Michigan. As James McWhorter points out in his outstanding book "Losing the Race," only about 14 percent of the black students at selective colleges come from poor backgrounds. The other 85 percent are mostly the sons and daughters of middle and upper-middle class African-Americans who were given preference over the children of whites and Asians. In practice, this leads to the thoroughly unjust result that the hard-working daughter of a white waitress will be rejected from the University of Michigan and many other colleges in favor of the son of a black doctor or lawyer. Proponents of preferences urge that primary and secondary schools with black majorities are starved for funds, while mostly white suburban schools are awash in luxuries. But as Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom demonstrated in their comprehensive study "America in Black and White," this is simply not true. "Average expenditures per pupil in the central cities of metropolitan areas were identical to average spending in the suburbs around them." And even in suburban schools with all the trimmings, blacks continue to lag behind whites in academic performance. In Shaker Heights, Ohio, a liberal, integrated, highly nurturing environment, black students constitute half the population but only 10 percent of the top fifth of the class and 90 percent of the bottom fifth. Racial preferences perpetuate the very worst stereotype about African-Americans -- that they are not as smart as whites or Asians. McWhorter makes a very persuasive case that affirmative action has corrupted its "beneficiaries," who know full well that they are held to lower standards and live down to that level. Black students from families with annual incomes above $70,000 had lower SAT scores in 1995 than white students with incomes below $10,000. Affirmative action apologists believe that white racism and nothing more accounts for the differential. But the academic success of blacks from Africa and the West Indies sheds doubt on this. McWhorter, who taught linguistics at Berkeley, noticed throughout his teaching career that while some black students excelled, far too many refused to apply themselves. Jay Rosner, director of a foundation that provides LSAT preparation courses, testified in court papers filed in connection with the Michigan case that despite discounted fees and outreach efforts, blacks showed far less interest than other students in the courses that could boost performance on the LSAT. A cult of anti-intellectualism pervades black life at every income level, McWhorter argues, and affirmative action only perpetuates it.