The Magazine

Liberalism vs. Diversity

The high stakes in the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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Better to begin with what will not happen. If the Supreme Court outlaws racial preferences in higher education, there will be no social unrest--no urban riots or torched college campuses. In the states that have abolished affirmative action in public higher education, no social upheaval ensued. Affirmative action was ended by court order in the relatively conservative state of Texas, and by the governor in Florida, but liberal California and Washington did the deed by referendum. They could do so because Americans everywhere oppose preferences. From the beginning, the practice was imposed by judicial and administrative fiat. The public will not rebel at the abolition of something it never wanted in the first place.

Academic affirmative action, then, is not the stuff of revolutions. Racial preferences come into play only at relatively selective institutions--at most, 20 percent of all colleges and universities. And an even smaller slice will feel the effect of national repeal, since many schools in states without affirmative action have adopted race-neutral ways of increasing minority enrollment.

Even black Americans seem likely to accommodate themselves to the banning of preferences. The truth is, nearly all fairly worded polls show that between one-third and two-thirds of African Americans (along with lopsided majorities of all Americans) reject affirmative action. National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. concluded as much from a careful survey, earlier this month, of polling on affirmative action in higher education. For example, the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University racial attitudes survey in the spring of 2001 found that only 12 percent of African Americans agreed that "race or ethnicity should be a factor" in college admissions, hiring, and promotion, while 86 percent of African Americans agreed that such decisions "should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity." The upshot of Taylor's survey is that the black community is at best divided on the question of academic affirmative action and on balance arguably opposed. No doubt a Supreme Court decision against preferences would precipitate protests on some campuses. Yet even at a relatively radical school like Berkeley, opponents of affirmative action lack broad student support, and have been unable to mount mass demonstrations since California abolished racial preferences.

BUT IF ENDING racial preferences in higher education won't kick off a revolution, what it will do is spur measures designed to restore minority enrollment to something like its current levels. Those measures will fall into three broad categories--outreach, percentage plans, and thinly veiled defiance--and will occasion the new battles in our long-running war over preferences.

Before academic affirmative action was turned into a quota system, it was meant to be outreach. The idea was to identify promising minority students in high school (or earlier), and help them gain the skills and experience needed for admission to college. The most welcome result of an end to racial preferences would be a return to genuine outreach. In fact, it was only the abolition of affirmative action by Proposition 209 that forced the University of California system to create the Berkeley Pledge, an outreach program designed to help low-income students with no family history of higher education qualify for college the right way--without preferences. And some of the less glamorous campuses in the University of California system, like U.C. Riverside, have been particularly successful, since Prop. 209, at operating sound outreach plans.

The percentage plans adopted in Texas, California, and Florida present a more problematic alternative to affirmative action. By guaranteeing a place at a state school to students who graduate in, say, the top 8 percent of their high school class, percentage plans restore a significant minority presence to colleges, and do so on a race-blind basis. Because of percentage plans, every public college in California and Texas now has an enrollment of underrepresented minorities that exceeds 10 percent. That's important, because the University of Michigan claims that 10 percent is the level of minority representation required to create a "critical mass" of diversity on campus.

So percentage plans effectively ward off the scare scenarios purveyed by the advocates of affirmative action. And, in addition to being race-blind, percentage plans have another advantage: They reward hard work by students at the weakest high schools.