EVER SINCE CALIFORNIA'S two top public universities released figures showing a dramatic drop in black and Hispanic enrollment in the wake of the state's ban on racial preferences, commentators have been wringing their hands about the unfairness of it all. But at least one opponent of racial preferences has not been scared off by the brouhaha -- Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who has announced plans to introduce a federal law to bar colleges that receive federal funds from using racial preferences to admit students.
Riggs wants to amend the higher-education bill scheduled for a vote in the House next week, but he must first get permission to offer his amendment from the House Rules Committee.
Earlier this month, the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA announced that far fewer blacks and Hispanics met admission standards under the new, race-neutral rules, with black admissions off 66 percent and Hispanic admissions off 53 percent at Berkeley, and 43 percent and 33 percent, respectively, at UCLA. The numbers made front-page news across the country and caused even some long-time critics of affirmative action to rethink their position. Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer -- who wrote one of the best-known critiques of racial preferences, the 1975 book "Affirmative Discrimination" -- recanted his opposition to preferential college admissions, saying "strict application of the principle of qualification would send a message of despair to many blacks, a message that the nation is indifferent to their difficulties and problems."
But was the news from California reason for such despair -- and should it be an excuse to hold off banning racial preferences in other states? In fact, just the opposite. Although California's two most elite schools indeed experienced a precipitous drop in minority admissions once they were forbidden from using racial and ethnic preferences in selecting students, no such calamity occurred in other California public colleges and universities.
Some campuses in the state actually increased the numbers of minority students admitted -- UC-Riverside, for example, offered places to 42 percent more blacks than the previous year, and UC-Santa Cruz offered admission to 7 percent more Hispanics. Overall, black and Hispanic enrollment was off system-wide at the University of California by about 18 percent and 7 percent, respectively. And numbers from the state college system, far less competitive than the University of California's eight campuses, have not been released.
What the California numbers show is that some schools -- especially the most elite schools in the state -- have been rigging their admissions process for years. While some blacks and Hispanics have benefitted, thousands of other deserving students have been penalized. Ironically, a great many of the students discriminated against by affirmative action policies have been both poor and members of a racial minority. As the UC-Berkeley admissions director admitted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, when Berkeley and UCLA decided to give special consideration to poor students or those who were the first in their families to attend college, blacks and Hispanics in this category were "vastly outnumbered by low-income white and Asian students." And the UCLA admissions director said, "The fact is that lots of the blacks we admit are middle class, second and third-generation in college while many of the Asian-Americans are poor."
Is this kind of preference fair? Just ask Cheryl Hopwood, the young woman who succesfully challenged the University of Texas Law School's discriminatory admissions policy a few years ago, or Jennifer Gratz, who is currently challenging policies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, or Katuria Smith, who is fighting the University of Washington Law School's affirmative-action admissions. Each of these young women comes from a working-class background and fought against enormous odds to get to college in the first place, only to find doors shut in her face because she was white.
Surely life is not always fair, but there is nothing more inequitable than being judged solely on the basis of skin color. For years, schools like Berkeley and UCLA have been engaged in exactly that kind of unfairness. Ending the discriminatory admissions practices of universities that engage in racial preferences will entail some pain, as blacks and Hispanics who did not get into the schools of their choice this year discovered. But abandoning race preferences will have important benefits as well, and not just for the whites and Asians who have been harmed by the policies in the past.
Said one Hispanic student who was rejected by her first choice school but got into
another, the end of racial preferences " is better because (universities) don't emphasize
who you are, but what you can
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