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Jewish World Review May 28, 2003 / 26 Iyar, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Affirmative action discords | The Supreme Court will soon rule on affirmative-action cases at the University of Michigan. Not cited in the oral arguments before the Court -- and seldom mentioned in the national debate on racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions -- are two very pertinent factors: 1) If there's any hope for affirmative action to be successful, it should begin before college. 2) The current approach to affirmative action often polarizes campuses instead of creating harmonious diversity.

Two former college presidents, William Bowen (Princeton) and Derek Bok (Harvard) wrote the book "The Shape of the River" (Princeton Press, 2000) that has often been used by supporters of affirmative action to emphasize their principal argument for "diversity." They claim that having a "critical mass" of black students on campus will enable white students to deal much better, after college, with our increasingly multi-racial society.

This is also the University of Michigan's primary justification for its racial and ethnic preferences. However, very seldom quoted from the Bowen-Bok findings is -- as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation pointed out in The Washington Post last March -- that "86 percent of black students at the 28 elite universities they studied were from middle- or upper-status families."

Left behind were a large number of black students from low-income communities, whose schools had failed to educate them well enough for admission to any college. As Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University of America School of Law in Washington, notes, "authentic affirmative action begins years before students apply (to college)."

Basic affirmative action -- which should be available to all children, regardless of race, who are from low-income families and are confined to poor schools -- requires much more effective principals, teachers and curricula for what are euphemistically called "disadvantaged" students.

As for the contention that having a "critical mass" of largely middle- or upper-status minority students on college campuses will help reduce racial and ethnic tensions in the greater society, there is a lot of contrary evidence that, actually, current affirmative-action practices often have a divisive effect.

In their book, "When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Students" . Arthur Levine, president of the teachers College, Columbia University, and Jeannette Cureton, an education researcher, reported that "students were most troubled about race relations on those campuses in which diverse groups had the greatest opportunity for sustained contact."

Levine added, in The New York Times in June 2000, that, "diversity is the largest cause of student unrest on campus, accounting for 39 percent of student protests, according to our study. Discourse is dominated by two small, but vociferous groups -- one yelling that diversity has eclipsed all other aspects of college life and the other shouting that colleges remain impervious to diversity. Meanwhile, the rest of the campus community tries to avoid the issue."

When I was active on the nationwide college lecture circuit, and during a period when I taught at Princeton University, I found much of the same discord on campuses.

This past April 1, a Washington Post story, entitled "At U-Michigan Minority Students Find Access -- and Sense of Isolation," indicated that "the schoolyard debate on how minority applicants are admitted has magnified every perceived white insult, and the hurt and anger that result."

Moreover, at some campuses, administrations increase the isolation of both white and black students by having dormitories limited to black or other ethnic groups; and by holding separate first-year orientation sessions that further divide students.

This does not preclude genuine friendships among students of diverse backgrounds, but often, as an Asian student at the University of California-Berkley complained: "When you first get here ... they really shove that (diversity talk) down your throat ... I really resented it."

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, let's begin fairness at kindergarten, including the resources for life-long education.

The fundamental problem with affirmative action based on any kind of collective racial, ethnic or gender preferences remains. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires and guarantees equal protections under the law for individuals. This is -- or should be -- the essential issue before the Supreme Court in the University of Michigan's affirmative action cases. If it is not, divisiveness, rather than inclusiveness, will continue at these college and university campuses, which collectively still practice affirmative action.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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