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Affirmative Action In 2013: Breaks Should Be Based On Economic Need — Not Race

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We’re in for biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth if a pending Supreme Court ruling overturns the University of Texas’s race-based affirmative action program. Schools around the country are bracing for the decision (I know, because I work at one, and this column reflects my view, not my employer’s). Liberals from the Obama Administration to The New York Times editorial board shudder at the prospect of racial preferences going down.

To which the only rational response is: Please.

It is time to base admissions breaks on economic need rather than skin color — class-based rather than race-based affirmative action. Here’s why:

The traditional argument against need-based affirmative action — that it will decimate the ranks of racial minorities on campus — ain’t necessarily so. California voters ended race-based breaks at state schools almost 20 years ago. Latino enrollment at state universities quickly dropped by more than a fifth, and black enrollments by one percent (the most academically rigorous campuses had bigger drops.) But the percentages of minority students have surged back up, because California universities responded by proactively grooming minority kids and others in disadvantaged neighborhoods for college — helping them to take prep classes and required tests like the SAT, steering them to remedial academic help, and assisting them with colleges’ opaque application forms.

“Disadvantaged” in 2013 no longer means what it did in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson made the case for affirmative action for black students.

These efforts require the universities to devote millions of dollars and hundreds of workers. They pay for that by using part-timers and volunteers and pursuing federal and private money. Those are just options for strapped schools. Elite, wealthy schools would have their own resources to tap.

Colleges in five other states that junked racial preferences established a similar beachhead in elementary and secondary schools. So if the Court rules against Texas, it is likely others would parrot them or could be shamed into doing so. After all...

Affirmative action liberals putatively care about the poor as well — and poor students’ numbers on elite campuses are dismal. One study found that only one-third of low-income, high-achieving students attends the nation’s 238 most selective colleges. Blacks and Hispanics also are underrepresented at these schools; one professor insists, in the title of her blog post, that “Racism Remains Alive and Well,” justifying racial preferences. But if they worked, African Americans wouldn’t be so sparse in top schools, and California’s doing no worse with its class-based approach. You needn’t be a Tea Partier to see this; California is a blue state, as are some others that abolished racial preferences. Which goes to show...

Several progressives have bailed on race-based affirmative action. Evidence includes a recent report from the Century Foundation, a think tank concerned with inequality, and what The Times’s David Leonhardt called “a rump group” of liberal scholars who think class breaks would be anchored more firmly on merit. This leads to our final point:

Either you believe in fairness or you don’t. It’s instructive that The Times, editorializing for racial preferences, invoked diversity and scanted fairness, which was “the founding principle of affirmative action,” Leonhardt writes. Perhaps the editors knew that that blogging professor’s argument — that lingering, general racism makes racial preferences for specific individuals fair — is a dud. There’s lingering prejudice in some quarters against Catholics, but as a Catholic who was never held back by it, I would have made a lousy candidate for an admissions break. But colleges should make provisions for less-than-stellar students from poor families who’ve demonstrated hard work and love for learning in elementary and secondary schools where bad teaching, a starvation of resources, and perhaps violence is part of the daily schedule.

[The] professor’s argument — that lingering, general racism makes racial preferences for specific individuals fair — is a dud.

Some say preferences for the disadvantaged are fair given those bestowed on children of alumni (yours truly was one) and athletes. Agreed. But “disadvantaged” in 2013 no longer means what it did in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson made the case for affirmative action for black students. Even back then, Leonhardt notes, Martin Luther King, Jr. “understood the vulnerability of today’s affirmative action. ‘Many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother will find it difficult to accept,’ he wrote in a private letter, ‘special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc. and does not take into sufficient account their plight (that of the white worker.)’”

King grasped the nuances of fairness. Many of his ideological descendants, though well-meaning, have miles to go.


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This program aired on May 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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