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It Shouldn't Be Good to Have It Bad
By John McWhorter
At UC Berkeley, where I teach, we are awaiting the arrival of the first freshman class selected under a revised admissions policy for the University of California schools. All applicants are being evaluated according to whether they have survived "hardships," with those who have done so netting extra points. Under this policy, the student submitting a top-level dossier who has led a lucky life will often be less likely to get in than one whose dossier is just as good but also attests to suffering from family strife, the care of younger siblings, certified emotional problems or the like.
This is technically a "race-neutral" policy, but it's really just old wine in a new bottle. The UC "suits" have crafted a canny end run around 1996's Proposition 209, which outlawed racial preferences in college admissions. The new policy is designed to bolster the presence of "brown" minorities -- blacks and Latinos -- without explicitly targeting race. (The Asian minority, who submit top applications out of proportion to their numbers, are considered something to work around.) In fact, this new policy enhances the culture of victimization, teaching students of any color a lesson history will consider curious and misguided.
After Proposition 209 took effect beginning with the entering class of 1998, the numbers of brown students admitted to Berkeley and UCLA dropped sharply. The usual coalition of pundits and faculty radicals shouted "resegregation," and Berkeley erupted with endless rallies. Among the faculty, it quickly became a required gesture to shake one's head ruefully and look off into the distance whenever the demise of racial preferences came up (although after a glass of wine many would privately admit that it had been long overdue).
In reality, the outlawing of racial preferences did not so much bar black and Latino students from the UC system as reshuffle them. While the numbers of these students fell at the flagships Berkeley and UCLA, which have the very highest admissions standards, they rose at several other UC schools, all solid institutions and many prestigious, such as UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego.
Nevertheless, the idea of a brown student of any background being held to the same standards as others remained alarming to scattered committees and student groups. I will never forget how blithely such people assumed that a black professor like me would share their opinion, and their screaming indignation deeply unsettled the UC top brass. They were in truth concerned as much for UC's public reputation as for the moral principles involved -- I had one conversation with a very highly placed Berkeley official who said he agreed with me but could never say it in public. With the futility of reversing the new law clear, the "hardship" factor has been added as a palliative.
Of course, the official line is that administrators are deeply concerned about hardship across race lines, but it doesn't wash. How seriously can we take this sudden concern for the coal miner's daughter when we heard not a peep of such class-based indignation during three decades of racial preferences?
In any case, here we are. And in a constructive vein, sniffing out hardship among all students looks great on paper. But the seams show in practice.
It must be remembered that hardship has always factored into student assessments across America at almost all schools, as you would expect. Who would not give a break to a student with cerebral palsy or one who speaks English as a second language? But focusing on "hardship" in evaluating all students sends us drifting into murkier waters.
Because I once sat on a committee that distributes scholarship money, I have already seen at close hand how this kind of evaluation operates. After Proposition 209 passed -- even before the new universally applied hardship policy -- scholarship awards were rechanneled according to such life trials, with packages once earmarked for "diversity" newly labeled as "hardship" bonuses. During the committee's decision-making process, one part of me felt that the new policy was an advance over the old, where too often extra funding went to "diverse" students of affluent circumstances who were essentially "white" culturally. But another part of me could not help sensing that before the new regime, the types of life experiences we were acknowledging would not have struck any of us as demanding a thumb on the scale.
And as so often happens, social policies that seem noble in theory have a way of drifting into farce on the individual level. A Wall Street Journal piece some weeks ago described a student with a 1410 SAT score who, having failed to describe any hardships she had suffered, was denied admission to Berkeley and UCLA, while another student with an 1120 SAT, stressing her humble origins and her help with supporting the family as her mother fought breast cancer, was admitted to both. In other words, a superficially well-intentioned policy penalized the first young woman for feeling that her concrete accomplishments made a sufficient case for her admission.
And this despite the fact that as the child of a struggling Korean-immigrant pastor, the first young woman had actually survived hardships -- just as, well, most of us have. Most people's lives are far from perfect. Those who have known neither parental divorce, severe illness, social ostracization or extended emotional trauma are exceptions, whom many of us privately dismiss as "boring" or "too perfect." We often think that a little hard-core misery would do these people some good! Indeed, most of us would worry that the child who has known no suffering is at risk in later life. In my eight years teaching here, I can attest that among students of all classes and races, those who cannot refer to at least one unfortunate stain upon their life trajectories are rare. They tend to refer to themselves almost guiltily as "just lucky," and often seek out experiences with the less fortunate, such as tutoring underprivileged students in bad Oakland neighborhoods, to make themselves "better rounded."
Making do despite obstacles, then, is a matter of ordinary human resilience. As such, the new policy at UC is ranking students according to how vibrantly human they are. And this is a sharp departure from assessing how well a student is likely to perform academically. Wangling grace and dignity out of this vale of tears is hardly limited to the academically gifted.
Certainly, hardship of obvious significance must be taken into account when evaluating an applicant. But when a black high schooler tells a newspaper interviewer, "I hope Berkeley can understand that I had to babysit after school," we see the results of a culture of excuse-making. And no one would argue that performance is enhanced by focusing on obstacles. For decades now, students entering college have imbibed a "victimologist" perspective; now UC's "hardship" policy serves as a kind of college prep course on the subject.
In the end, one must ask why UC administrators could not simply base a preference system on socioeconomic class. Various studies have shown that class crucially affects the correlation between students' grades and scores and their actual abilities. Of course, income alone would be too coarse a measure. A point system could be established also taking into account parental occupation, quality of high school, and whether or not a student's parents had gone to college. This would address the indisputable obstacles to success in American society, without scanning every single applicant's life span for "handicaps" that the students and their parents often -- rightly -- never thought of as such. A class-based policy would also bring in brown students of humbler circumstances without catching in the net brown children of affluent parents (who today are as much a norm as disadvantaged ones). This would fulfill the original goal of affirmative action, to give opportunities to those unfairly barred from advancement, rather than making do with crude color-coded headcounts.
The reason class alone does not move the UC administrators is no mystery. As Shelby Steele has argued, racial preference policies have always been less about giving a race the skills to succeed than assuaging white guilt. To all but the diehard Marxist, class difference is a deep-seated and permanent reality -- and thus few are guilty about it.
Advocates of the new policy openly sniff that a class-based preference system would net more working-class whites and Asians than brown students. This is true -- particularly for whites, whose large numbers mean that numerically there are more of them living on the other side of the tracks than blacks.
But if the true goal of the policy were to address societal injustice, then those so troubled by "hardship" would have no problem with an influx of working-class whites. After all, it surprises no one that there are more whites than blacks or Asians in California. Instead, the new admissions system does look to high school quality and parents' education level -- but these are not seen as sufficient without the "hardship" measure appended. This might seem redundant, until we see that it is being utilized as a way to revive precisely the racial bean-counting that Proposition 209 outlawed. It's no accident, then, that the rejected student above is Korean while the admitted one is Latino -- nor even that a Korean student with a 1500 SAT who, just like the Latino one, helped support his family when his mother got breast cancer, was rejected.
A while ago, an older white professor who had read my book "Losing the Race" genially informed me that whatever the value of my arguments against race-based preferences, "I insist on my right to be guilty." He's not alone, and life will go on -- we had a nice chuckle of truce. But on the subject of students of any color or background, I will continue to insist that the person we pity is a person we do not respect -- "hardships" or not.
John McWhorter is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley; his next book is "Authentically Black: Essays for the New Black Majority" (Penguin Putnam).
©2002 The Washington Post
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