Race-conscious college admissions survived a near miss in the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.
The court might have forbidden the University of Texas from giving any consideration whatsoever to race in attempting to create a diverse student body.
That would have would shaken the world of higher education, which has gotten the once-precise concept of affirmative action entangled with the vaguer agenda of ethnic diversity.
Instead, the justices decided the case on narrow procedural grounds, scolding two lower courts for not taking a harder look at whether the UT might be using race to unfairly exclude applicants. The young woman who’d argued she’d been shut out because she was white won the right to put the UT on trial – but the Supreme Court didn’t overturn past rulings that schools can use race to assemble a medley of students.
This discussion needs more honesty. The honesty would begin by acknowledging that the term “diversity” is often used as a proxy for affirmative action, because the latter term seems to be falling out of fashion. But affirmative action would be a stronger foundation for any kind of race-based consideration.
Affirmative action has a straightforward goal: helping clearly disadvantaged students who’ve historically been frozen out of the economic mainstream.
It also implies real metrics. For example, if white men are earning college degrees at twice the rate of black men, we know there’s something amiss. Knowing that, we can look for causes and remedies. One of those remedies might be extra help qualifying for college, not necessarily extra points from the admissions office.
Love affirmative action or hate it, it has the virtue of clarity.
Ethnic diversity, as an end in itself, can hide a multitude of sins. Nine years ago, for example, Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. punctured Harvard’s boasts of increased black enrollment. Gates and fellow Harvard Prof. Lani Guinier produced data suggesting that two-thirds of the school’s blacks came from immigrant families from Africa or the West Indies, or were biracial.
Harvard was using those pumped-up ethnic numbers to conceal its relative lack of students whose families bore the full weight of past oppression in this country.
Ethnic diversity for its own sake might give preference to a wealthy student from Mexico City over a stellar Korean-American from a struggling family (because Asians abound in the pool of qualified applicants). If extra points are to be handed out, they should be handed out to unprivileged Americans.
A more useful lawsuit and court decision would tease affirmative action out of the nebulous concept of diversity, and address that squarely.
Heretical as it sounds, students have often flourished in the absence of racial diversity – at black colleges, for example, or the old Harvard and Oxford. The overriding focus ought to be getting disadvantaged kids through the door in the first place.