Supreme Court Lets Elites Off Easy On Racial Equality

Posted June 27, 2003 at 3:12pm

Rather than helping minorities compete on equal terms, the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions last week gave the American establishment a cheap and lazy way to handle the problem of inequality.

The proper way would be to spend the money and political energy necessary to improve education so that African-Americans and Hispanics would not need racial preferences to make it into colleges and graduate schools.

[IMGCAP(1)] Instead, openly responding to what amounted to judicial lobbying by 100 top U.S. corporations, universities, foundations and individuals who filed amicus briefs, the court permitted universities to continue counting race as a “plus factor” in admissions, trumping academic preparation.

These elites can satisfy themselves that black and brown faces will be present on America’s escalators to power — without doing anything to ensure that the individuals involved (or blacks and Hispanics in general) are better educated.

Corporations, rather than paying higher taxes and fighting in Congress and state legislatures for better schools, will have a ready supply of minority recruits that will enable them to appear “diverse” to customers of many races.

Even President Bush, who wants to appear “compassionate” to suburban moderates and Hispanics — but doesn’t want to fully fund his own education reform initiative — praised the court for “recognizing the value of diversity on our nation’s campuses.”

Bush declared that the court’s two decisions last week in cases involving the University of Michigan “seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law.”

The court stuck down the university’s “mechanistic” undergraduate preference system, under which blacks and Hispanics were awarded more “points” based on race than they could earn with a perfect SAT score, but upheld the Michigan law school’s “individualistic” and “holistic” selection process.

But the likelihood is that the decision actually will permit university admissions departments to be more subjective and secretive about their racially based selection methods, since there will be no clear standards by which to judge them.

Bush earlier urged the court to mandate “race neutral” methods of achieving diversity that would have helped at least some students of all races from poverty backgrounds to get into college.

Texas’ “10 percent rule,” put into effect when its race-based affirmative action plan was invalidated, allows for the top 10 percent of every high school class to gain admission to the state’s universities.

Around the country, “10 percent” and kindred systems would give preferences to children from white working-class neighborhoods — as well as minority areas — who had achieved good grades.

But the court’s Michigan decision specifically validates selection based on race — so that the child of a black millionaire gains a preference ahead of the child of a white janitor. No state need establish “race neutral” plans now.

The worst thing about the court decision is that, while designed to help minorities, ultimately it does not do so. It may help some individuals gain an advantage, but it leaves the mass of black and brown students behind.

As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom demonstrate in their forthcoming book, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” academic performance by African-American and Hispanic children continues to lag far beyond that of whites.

Using new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Thernstroms show that the average black student in the 12th grade reads at the same level as the average white student in the eighth grade.

In the late 1980s, the reading gap between blacks and whites had narrowed to 3.3 years, but now it is 4.7 years. Math performance has lapsed back to 1978 levels. In science, black 12th graders are five years behind their white peers.

The latest NAEP results show that about 40 percent of white children read “proficiently” in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, but only 12 to 16 percent of black kids do so, and 15 to 22 percent of Hispanics, depending on the age.

In her majority opinion in the Michigan law school case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor acknowledged that race-conscious admissions are a “deviation from the norm of equal treatment” and must end someday, perhaps 25 years from now.

Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative envisions that all children will be reading at a “proficient” level by 2014.

Unfortunately, the country is not heading toward those goals. Republicans won’t spend the money even though the average teacher in America makes only $43,000 a year, $10,000 behind accountants and nearly $40,000 behind computer analysts.

Meantime, Democrats stand in the way of voucher systems and school reforms, opposed by teachers unions, that would allow principals to hire and fire teachers and pay them extra based on student performance.

It’s easy for the establishment to put a “diverse” face on America, but it’s not helping America’s kids.