Memo to Supreme Court: Be brave

Posted: May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

When it takes up the University of Michigan's racial preferences policy, the Supreme Court of the United States will be treading on the most sensitive ground in American life. If the justices are brave (to say nothing of true to the Constitution), they will pull the plug on racial quotas in education.

I say this knowing full well that if the Supreme Court invalidates racial preferences some painful short-term consequences will ensue. The number of black students at elite colleges will fall through the floor -- for a time. And that is not something that anyone of good will welcomes. (Though the additional claim -- that campuses will become "lily white" is not accurate. Large numbers of Indians, Asians and others will continue to make the cut.)

Jonathan Kay, writing in the June issue of Commentary, cites the raw numbers for law school applicants. "Of the almost 91,000 applicants wishing to begin their studies at accredited law schools in the fall of 2002, approximately 4,500 had undergraduate grade point averages of at least 3.5 and LSAT scores of at least 165 -- the standard that most applicants must meet to gain entry to a top-10 law school.

Of this group, 81 percent identified themselves as white; 10 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander; and 0.65 percent as black. That is, there were only 29 self-identified blacks in the whole national applicant pool with numbers that, for a typical white candidate, would gain admission into a top-10 law school -- or about three blacks per school."

Though advocates of affirmative action have dreamed up every disguise in the human imagination to obscure this reality, everyone knows that it is true. And knowing it has corrosive effects on both victims and beneficiaries of preferences. Though affirmative action was designed to compensate for past discrimination and eliminate vestigial feelings of racial superiority on the part of whites, it has produced in some cases the opposite effect.

Where preferences reign, whites and other students who must compete on a higher level secretly disdain black students whose qualifications they question. And black students, sensing this suspicion, interpret their white colleagues' response as the persistence of racism. This, in turn, inclines black students to become more insular and exclusive -- to choose black dining tables and sometimes even black dorms -- further estranging white and black students from one another.

When underqualified black students are granted admission to extremely selective schools, they tend to drop out at extremely high rates and to find the work very challenging. In their 1997 masterpiece "America in Black and White," Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom described the drop-out problem: "Although almost half (45 percent) of African Americans in the 25 to 29 age bracket today have been enrolled in college, barely one out of seven holds a bachelor's degree. The drop off here -- 45 percent at the starting gate but only 15 percent reaching the finishing line -- is disturbing."

As many keen observers like Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell and the Thernstroms have shown, racial preferences, while certainly providing a ticket to prosperity for many, also exact a high psychic price. Beneficiaries can never derive the pride and self-confidence true achievement imparts. And those who would have succeeded without preferences are forever denied the level of respect that they deserve.

Finally, where you stand on racial preferences comes down to what you think are the causes of the test score gap. I believe that one of the reasons blacks have continued to lag behind whites and Asians is the existence of preferences. Why push yourself when you know you don't have to? James McWhorter's excellent book "Losing the Race" is an eloquent treatment of this idea.

If preferences were eliminated from higher education, black students at every level of education from primary through middle and high school would have to take academic performance more seriously. A society concerned about getting higher numbers of blacks into elite colleges would be forced to consider sweeping reforms at the primary school level, perhaps even including school choice. And everyone would be freed from the totalitarian truth suppression that now characterizes large swaths of academia.