I'll never forget a student of mine at UC Berkeley, a casual observer of the local protest scene, asking me how I felt about racial preferences in admissions. I told her that I thought the policy made sense 30 years ago but was now obsolete. Her response, genuinely curious, was: "Aren't you in favor of diversity?" Of course I am -- as an African American, it would be strange if I weren't. But I was struck that for her, as for so many, "diversity" was the linchpin of the debate, while candidates' qualifications seemed to hover as an abstraction.
It's time for conversations like that to become a thing of the past.
I was encouraged last week when the Supreme Court finally said it will revisit whether "diversity" is a legitimate goal in composing a student body, in this case at the University of Michigan and its law school. The entire "diversity" rationale traces to a solo opinion by the late Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the 1978 case of Allan Bakke, a white applicant who was denied admission to a medical school that reserved some of its spots for minorities. Powell agreed that quotas were impermissible, creating a majority in support of Bakke's admission, but suggested in his opinion that diversity was a justifiable reason to choose a minority applicant over an equally qualified white one. He also wrote, however, that "racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect and thus call for the most exacting judicial discrimination." Nowhere in his decision did he call for the de facto racial quota systems that universities have built up since.
In a moral America, affirmative action in admissions must be based on socioeconomic class. In a nation riddled with inequality, we cannot require the same caliber of grades, scores and advanced placement classes from students who have suffered true disadvantage. But the Supreme Court must strike down the use of "diversity" as a coy, Orwellian euphemism for treating middle-class black students as lesser minds. It must do this because our "diversity" doubletalk perpetuates black mediocrity.
To understand what I mean, we must pull back the curtain to see what admissions committees really do in the name of "diversity." Many people operate under an impression I call "Affirmative Action 101": They assume that admissions committees operate under the "thumb on the scale" principle that Powell suggested, favoring black candidates only in the case of a tie.
The misconception is understandable, as college administrators typically paint this picture until someone with smoking-gun documents drags them into court. But again and again, universities have been exposed as using race neither as a tiebreaker nor as "one of many factors," as they tend to claim, but as the most decisive of all factors, regularly admitting brown students under lower standards regardless of their background.
The Center for Individual Rights, which has brought two suits against the University of Michigan -- one against the law school, the other concerning undergraduate admissions -- has found that minority students were on average 234 times more likely to be admitted to the law school than white students with the same credentials. The past several years have seen similar quota systems uncovered at many other universities around the country.
Of course, many people argue that standards must be different for disadvantaged students. But to justify racial preferences on the basis of this alone implies that most black people are poor. That was true once -- in 1960. But in 2002, fewer than a quarter of black families are below the poverty line, and there are more middle-class black families in America than poor ones. And because few poor people have the opportunity to attend selective universities, most black students at such schools are middle-class.
So: Despite college administrators' scripted denials, racial preferences since 1978 have meant admitting middle-class black students under much lower standards than the ones set for whites. The assumption that the typical black applicant grew up in the 'hood is long outdated.
The question we need to ask, then, is why schools must lower standards to have a decent number of middle-class black students on campus. Over the past few years, a study by the Minority Student Achievement Network of 15 middle-class school districts has shown that black students tend to lag severely even in well-heeled suburbs, despite mentoring programs and well-sensitized teachers.
And one of the main reasons for this is cultural. In the late '60s, partly in response to the racism so much more prevalent then, black teens began teasing peers who strove to do well in school as "acting white." Several academics have examined this sad phenomenon, which is so entrenched in young black culture that one could barely grow up African American and miss it.
"Nerd," a word familiar to children of all races, is one thing. But to accuse a child of "acting white" is to accuse him or her of racial self-hatred. Given a choice between scholarly success and peer acceptance, the typical sixth-grader will choose the latter. The hundreds of testimonials I have received on this since my book "Losing the Race" was published two years ago have resoundingly confirmed this.
Not all black students reject school this overtly. But among many others, a sense that school is something "for other people" puts a scrim between them and schoolwork, discouraging the minor obsession that is key to top-rate work. One study illuminates this, showing that white eighth-graders are more likely to say they did their schoolwork for their parents, while black ones were more likely to say they did it for the teacher.
This presents us with a challenge: In developing mature social policies, we must face the fact that unequal outcomes do not always result from unequal opportunities. And here is where racial preferences perpetuate the problem they were designed to alleviate. The tragedies of America's racial past are obvious. But the fact will always remain: Lowered standards lead to lower performance. Incentive lies at the heart of all human endeavor, and if we set the bar low, then only the occasional shooting star will have any reason to rise above it. Many Asian students work almost obsessively to do well. With nothing to be gained by hitting the highest note, none but a sliver of black students will. Ever.
And a handicapping policy is especially pernicious for a group whose history has left its young ambivalent about the scholarly endeavor. As long as preference policies are in place, black students and their parents, as well as schoolteachers and college administrators, lack a crucial incentive to address this strain in black peer culture.
This is not a guess. Only after the outlawing of racial preferences at the University of California, for example, did administrators create the Berkeley Pledge, a program designed to identify minority students with the potential to qualify for UC schools and help them do so. To be sure, this happened only at gunpoint -- no one was terribly concerned about bringing out black and Latino students' abilities until the ban on lowering standards elicited warnings of "resegregation." But call it different paths to the same mountaintop. Outreach -- casting the net widely to find qualified minorities -- creates "diversity" without condemning minorities to also-ran status. And minority admissions have risen at UC schools each year since. While the impulse of whites to give blacks a pass in the name of our history is understandable, the person you pity is someone you do not truly respect. And black Americans understand that. The "Affirmative Action 101" misconception leads many blacks to decry attacks on racial preferences. But repeatedly, when polled as to whether they support racial preferences as actually practiced, black Americans are overwhelmingly opposed. In their recent book "Black Pride and Black Prejudice," Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza report that 90 percent of 756 blacks surveyed rejected admitting a black student over a white one when their difference in SAT scores is 25 points. In a poll in this newspaper last year, 86 percent of blacks rejected using race as a factor in college admissions.
Yes, even for middle-class blacks, racism is not dead. But we cannot proclaim that blacks are a strong people -- and a white person cannot claim to believe it -- if we insist that blacks are America's only group who require ideal conditions to excel.
If administrators are content to admit middle-class black students under the bar, then there are two possible explanations. Either they think black people are not up to performing at a high level, or they really don't care whether they ever learn to. A tragic and complex history has brought us to this point. It is up to the Supreme Court to bring out the best in all of us and outlaw the use of "diversity" as a fig leaf for policies that have kept two generations of black students from showing what they are made of. Consigning the "diversity" rationale to the dustbin of history would be the first civil rights victory of the new millennium.