Policy Documents

Affirmative Action: An Optimist's Challenge

Clint Bolick –
June 1, 1998

The sharp drop-off in black and Hispanic enrollment at the most elite California public universities following that state's curtailment of racial preferences has evoked widespread anxiety, and appropriately so. Yet it is not so much a crisis as a long-overdue wake-up call, one that ultimately will inure to the benefit of the very people seen mostly at risk.

So confident in this prognosis am I that I make the following pledge: I will abandon my opposition to racial preferences--a position I have advanced throughout my 15-year public career--if, five to ten years after its vote to end preferences, California does not produce more black and Hispanic college graduates per capita than states that retain preferential admissions. Indeed, we may well see positive results well before then.

That is because the data force us to reassess why certain minority groups are not doing well in a color-blind admissions process. Given the steadfast commitment to racial preferences among university officials, it is ludicrous to suggest that the drop-off in black and Hispanic admissions to the top campuses of the University of California is attributable to discrimination.

Rather, those figures represent a blistering indictment of our nation's K-12 public education system--a problem that for too long has been swept under the carpet of racial preferences. The real crisis is that black and Hispanic students are not graduating from high schools with sufficient credentials to occupy a proportional share of slots in the top colleges and universities. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom revealed in their recent book, America in Black and White, black high school graduates lag an average of four years behind their white counterparts in reading and mathematics. That gap is exacerbated by a minority dropout rate that in some large cities exceeds 50 percent.

Preferences only delay the day of reckoning, providing a superficial fix that fails to address the underlying educational inequalities. Indeed, they compound the problem by leapfrogging minority students into schools for which they lack adequate credentials, helping produce a college dropout rate twice as high for blacks as for whites. That makes a fraud of "affirmative action": what good does it do to drop out of UC-Berkeley if you can graduate from UC-Davis?

Although black and Hispanic enrollment rates have decreased in the top California schools, they have increased in other schools. What is happening is a closer match between students' credentials and the schools they attend, which should lead to improved graduation rates--hence, increased numbers of black and Hispanic college graduates.

Does that mean we should accept the reduction in minority numbers at the top schools? Absolutely not. But instead of treating symptoms by adding points to minority test scores, we should address the real underlying problems. At last that is happening in earnest--but only because college administrators no longer have the tool of racial preferences at their disposal.

Berkeley, for instance, has begun intervening at the K-12 level, seeking to increase the number of qualified minority high school graduates. Under Governor Pete Wilson's leadership, California has embarked on systemic public education reform, including smaller class sizes and innovative charter schools.

Some of the most strident defenders of racial preferences, such as the Clinton Administration and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, oppose the most systemic K-12 education reforms, such as school choice. As when the civil rights movement faced a similar crossroads in the context of school desegregation in the 1970s, today's liberals tend to favor cosmetic racial balance--euphemistically, "diversity"--over true expansion of educational opportunities.

Abolishing racial preferences casts a different lot: It recognizes there are no shortcuts to equality. We must make good on the promise of equal educational opportunities for all children, and target assistance to those who are denied such opportunities rather than resorting to the crude and inadequate proxy of race.

I am optimistic that such efforts will succeed far better than preferences. If events prove me wrong after a reasonable time, I will confess that America's moral commitment under law has failed to yield truly equal opportunity.

Will the defenders of the status quo back their positions with a pledge similar to mine? I hope so but suspect not. For in the end they will be forced to acknowledge that the placebo of racial preferences was never part of the solution, but in fact part of the problem.

Clint Bolick is litigation director at the Institute for Justice in Washington, DC.