Americans Have a Cool Debate About a Hot-Button Topic|
By BRENT STAPLES
The New York Times
March 2, 2003
The debate about race-sensitive college admissions policies
has been raging for more than 25 years, long enough for
some of the most visible protagonists to switch sides. What
started as a high-volume fistfight has evolved into a
sophisticated discussion in which those who oppose
affirmative action often do so by degrees - viewing it as
right for, say, the fire department or the state college
but wrong for an elite university's law school.
The added nuance lowers the volume and cools things down.
The most striking development is that Americans have
learned to talk about race without being racist.
Things have changed considerably since the heyday of
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who took
race-baiting to a new level when he ran for re-election
against a black opponent in 1990. A now-legendary attack ad
showed a white man crumpling up a rejection letter as a
voice-over said: "You needed that job, and you were the
best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority
because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"
Mr. Helms encouraged white constituents who had experienced
job loss or professional disappointment to blame
affirmative action. The message was that antiwhite
discrimination was the only possible explanation when a
black applicant was chosen over a white person.
George Bush took a page from the Jesse Helms playbook when
the administration filed a Supreme Court brief condemning
affirmative action at the University of Michigan and tried
to mislead Americans into believing that Michigan has a
quota system that systematically discriminates against
nonblack applicants. The Michigan program in no way
resembles such a system. Indeed, the program differs only
cosmetically from the one that transformed the American
military from a profoundly segregated force on the verge of
self-destruction into a model of interracial cohesiveness.
As recently as 10 years ago, quota-baiting by a president
would have triggered echoes around the country. Politicians
would have jumped on the bandwagon. But the debate about
the Michigan case has been surprisingly calm and
reflective, partly because many Americans now understand
how affirmative action works. Even hard-core conservatives
were shaken to see black and Hispanic students disappear
from California's elite campuses after Proposition 209
outlawed race-sensitive admissions policies there in 1996.
They do not wish to see the phenomenon repeated across the
The new tone also reflects a growing realization that a
majority of special admissions cases involve white students
who are athletes or V.I.P.'s, or wealthy applicants who get
into elite colleges because their families write big
checks. The growing realization that money and privilege
play a role in the admissions process has transformed what
began as a debate about race into a discussion about the
meaning of academic merit and what constitutes fair access
for the rich, white and famous.
The strongest challenge to the Bush position has come from
the American military, which knows that killing off
affirmative action would leave the country with a fighting
force that would be weaker and more segregated than it is
today. Senior officers still in uniform are unable to
challenge the White House directly. But their views are
reflected in an amicus brief filed last month and signed by
several decorated former officers - including three former
chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The brief discusses the Vietnam War period, when the
military's ability to defend the country was compromised
because it had gone into battle with a nearly all-white
officer corps and a multiracial fighting force. Integrating
the officer corps meant increasing the minority
representation among those entering the Army, Navy and Air
Force academies. This meant understanding that standardized
test scores are not the final arbiters of ability and
focusing on a broad range of factors - including race - in
recruitment and admissions.
As the Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt noted
recently, the military academies have grown in stature
since these changes took place. Many cadets, both white and
black, have been found to have leadership skills superior
to fellow students with higher test scores. A similar
pattern has emerged at elite civilian colleges, several of
which hold SAT's in such low regard that they no longer
require applicants to take them.
The idea that "merit" can be defined solely in terms of
test scores has been rejected by the American military and
has lost credibility just about everywhere - except in the
White House. The voices that argued most forcefully for Mr.
Bush to attack affirmative action at Michigan did so partly
because they believe that the university puts too little
weight on SAT scores and too much weight on race. This
fixation on the link between SAT scores and race is
peculiar, given a White House with so many people who
relied on privilege and connections as they rose to high
True, the university's admissions scheme - which is based
on a 150-point system - awards a maximum of 12 points for
the SAT score and 20 for membership in an underrepresented
minority group. But to focus on that is misleading, given
that 20 points can also be earned by white students who are
economically disadvantaged or who attend predominantly
nonwhite high schools. In addition, a full 110 of the 150
points are derived from academic factors.
Mr. Bush brandished the "quota" label to feed the far
right. But the country is learning that special admissions,
when taken as a whole, favor white students more than
blacks - and that class, not race, is the main determinant
of who gets a boost into the most coveted colleges.
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