Misguided Article On “Misguided Battle Over Race”

This morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an article, “In California, A Misguided Battle Over Race,” that criticizes the chairman of the University of California Board of Regents chairman John Moores’ campaign against continuing if disguised racial preferences in the UC system (discussed here, here, here, and here). Two of the three authors are affiliated with the Equal Justice Society, which opposes “the regressive right-wing bias of our federal judicial system,” and the third with Harvard’s Civil Rights Project,” which has never met a busing program it disliked.

The article defends UC’s “comprehensive review” from Moores’s charge that the program employed race as an “unstated factor” in awarding admission to 359 students whose SATs were under 1000, of whom a highly disproportionate amount were minorities.

You’ll need to read the article to determine how you regard its defense of this program. An only moderately unfair summary of its argument might include the following:

  • Ending comprehensive review would hurt minorities;
  • Moores says the program discriminates against Asians, but some of those admitted under it were Asian;
  • Asians do very well in UC admissions, thank you;
  • Students admitted with SAT scores under 1000 “are extremely high achievers in areas like leadership and community service, and half of them rank in the top 4 percent of their high-school classes.” [I assume this means that half do not — jsr]
  • SAT scores “are weak predictors” anyway;
  • Students from better high schools get accepted at a much higher rate than students from less strong high schools, and this is unfair.

The actual argument is a bit more sophisticated than this, but by how much is something you’ll need to decide for yourself.

The legal question is whether the criteria used in “comprehensive review” are racially neutral, as the authors claim, or camouflage for the real purpose of admitting more minorities. Thus it resembles the debate over the “Top X” plans in Texas and Florida, although it uses much more subjective criteria and thus relies much more heavily on the discretion of the admissions staffs. Perhaps more fundamental than the “neutrality” question, however, are the differing attitudes about “merit” this debate reveals.

Underlying much of the actual argument of this article, it seems to me, is the assumption that relying on traditional notions of merit is discriminatory, or at least bad. Otherwise, what is the point of this discussion:

… Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist and Rockridge Institute senior fellow; and Sean W. Jaquez, a Los Angeles lawyer, studied 1999 admission rates to the University of California system at nearly 1,100 California high schools. They found, for instance, that from Arcadia High, a school near Los Angeles composed largely of white and Asian-American upper-middle-class students, 370 students were admitted — nearly twice as many as from the bottom 50 high schools, defined as those with the lowest percentage of graduates admitted, combined. Washington High, a predominantly Latino school in Fresno, sent no graduates.

Even those statistics fail to capture the full story. For instance, John F. Kennedy High, a primarily African-American school in Richmond, a few miles north of Berkeley, had only five graduates admitted. The next spring, the civil-rights groups filing Williams v. State of California, a case challenging the legality of basic conditions and resources in California schools, revealed that AP physics, AP English, geometry, and algebra were all taught at Kennedy by a series of substitute teachers for the entire school year.

Now it’s one thing to say that this system is unfair, but it’s quite another to imply that it’s unfair for the University of California not to accept students from these schools at identical rates. The university system, any university system, is of course free to dispense with “merit,” however defined, if it chooses. But is it unfair not to?

Say What?