As discussed here a number of times in the past, defenders of overt racial preferences often criticize “Top X%” plans, ironically (or perhaps on occasion disingenuously), on meritocratic grounds. Students in the top 10% of poor high schools, they point out, are frequently much less well prepared for college than students in, say, the top tenth to twentieth percentile of much stronger high schools. By contrast, they argue, extending preferences only to blacks and Hispanics compromises pure merit much less.
I criticized Jeffrey Rosen, a very prominent proponent of this view, here several days ago, but I think there’s something significant here that deserves more attention, and Rosen’s article provides as good an occasion to discuss it as any I’ve seen. Here’s how Rosen makes this point:
In both California and Texas, the political pressures to achieve racial diversity proved so overwhelming that when each state’s universities were forbidden to take race into account in the admissions process, they simply refused to accept the decline in black and Hispanic enrollment that inevitably followed. Instead, universities responded to the widespread political demand for diversity by devising plans that, in effect, lowered academic standards across the board. This response has had some success in keeping up minority enrollments, but at the cost of an even more serious compromise of academic standards than the relatively modest concession represented by affirmative action itself.
[Quoting from a brief by three professors at the University of Texas]: “If affirmative action is ended, inevitable political, economic and legal forces will pressure the great public universities to lower admission standards as far as necessary to avoid resegregation[.]”
These meritocratic preferentialists bolster their argument by relying on the bete noir of most of their preferentialist colleagues, the SAT. Rosen quotes Texas law professor Douglas Laycock (a very impressive fellow, by the way), who points out that “the percentage of students admitted from the top 10 percent of their classes with SAT scores below 1,000 has tripled since the 10-percent plans were introduced.”
Also quoted extensively is Ron Wilson, a black Texas state representative to whom Rosen is much too deferential.
Wilson told me that the willingness of courts to allow selective universities to relax their academic standards for athletes and children of alumni but not for African-Americans was “a great hypocrisy” that his constituents would not tolerate.
When Rosen observed that Wilson’s approach would undermine “academic selectivity,” Wilson replied in a huff (and note well Rosen’s reaction):
“I’m sick and tired of hearing about academic quality,” Wilson exploded. “These schools are set up to educate the citizenry! It’s more important for us to educate the masses than to set up these Taj Mahal sacred cows that basically suck the lifeblood from a community for their own edification.” Wilson’s eagerness to destroy the only first-tier graduate schools in the state system, simply because his constituents won’t tolerate elitism, makes the choice between affirmative action and its alternatives seem easy.
Easy? Really? Rosen’s entire argument is based on the assumption that there is no right to be treated “without regard” to race, or at least not one that is important enough to bar buying off a diversity-hungry public with a “relatively modest” amount of racial discrimination. One wonders what Rosen’s response would be, say, to angry tax-payers who demanded that the number of Jews on the law school faculty should be reduced to a percentage only marginally higher than their proportion of the population, or perhaps to yahoo legislators who demanded a drastic reduction of the number of leftists. Would preserving an elite public institution justify abandoning the rights of a relatively small number of Jews or radicals? Or is it only the right to be free from racial discrimination that must be sacrificed?
Finally, there is another small problem with Rosen’s rights-insensitive approach to these matters. What he favors — what, in fact, all racial preference requires — is really a straightforward practice of “race norming,” taking the best qualified applicants from different racial and ethnic pools. He of course never uses that term, probably in deference to the fact that race norming was outlawed in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, at least for employment. And it was outlawed because it so offensively violates the “without regard” principle that even a potentially saving remnant of liberals and Democrats still support. (On the other hand, the even clearer Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates equal treatment of the races, and when’s the last time that barrier slowed down a charging diversiphile?) Having honorably admitted that he has now “learned to love quotas,” Rosen should also admit that race norming is the best way to implement them. Is it his contention that elite universities should be allowed to do what corporations cannot, or that the race norming ban should be eliminated?
I haven’t seen as much discussion of “diversity” as race norming as I would have expected, but a quick and cursory Google did turn up one interesting and rather perceptive observation from last January:
In 1991 Congress amended Title VII (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2) to prohibit “race norming” (grading applicants, test takers, etc., only in comparison with members of their own racial or ethnic group) even where such norming is claimed to be necessary to achieve diversity. If diversity becomes a compelling governmental interest, will this provision be held unconstitutional?
I’m not sure which is more impressive: the blogosphere, Google, or my lack of memory.