Battle of the races

October 20, 1995

Affirmative action is under attack in the United States. Tim Cornwell reports.

A snapshot from an ideological battlefield: reporters from the new conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, called recently at that bastion of the United States liberal elite, Harvard University. They had questions about Harvard's aggressive efforts in the nation's high schools and colleges to recruit ethnic minority students.

An expose was clearly in the works. The Standard, launched this month with funding from Rupert Murdoch, marches to the beat of Newt Gingrich's revolution, and is against affirmative action. Harvard, by contrast, boasts of being singled out by the Supreme Court itself as an example of how to bring racial diversity to the campus. In a landmark case in 1978, one justice said it made sense to take race into account, in the way that Harvard does.

Harvard has the best diversity record of any "highly selective" university in the US, certainly in the Ivy League. African Americans account for 8 per cent of its undergraduates, Hispanics 7 per cent, Asians 19 per cent. A staff of four handles some 50 to 60 separate programmes broadly designed to increase minority intake. Since the 1960s the college has sought out high-school students "of colour" across the US, and the Kennedy School of Government encourages colleges to urge their best minority scholars to apply.

But Harvard has a big advantage in attracting these students: cash. Its $7 billion endowment pays for the tuition of students who cannot afford it. "Discrimination because of race, creed, colour or national origin is contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the US," said John F. Kennedy, signing Executive Order 10925, in March 1961. And so the US embarked on a policy of affirmative action positive discrimination, as it is known across the Atlantic. Universities have been in the forefront Purdue University in Indiana, for example, rivals Harvard with 58 programmes. But more than 30 years later the policy is under broad attack, in the courts, in political campaigns, in Congress. Programmes that give minorities a leg up to counter a racist past are being re-examined and in the case of the University of California, abandoned.

Critics claim affirmative action has given rise to a system of racial quotas, a form of discrimination that violates John F. Kennedy's principles just as they do Martin Luther King's that Americans be judged on the content of their character, and not on the colour of their skin. On the presidential trail, Republicans have almost without exception vowed to abolish it, with governor Pete Wilson of California taking the lead. There are some signs, however as Wilson has dropped out of the race that they are taking a pause. For the issue of affirmative action, particularly at universities, touches on the hyper-sensitive issues of race and intelligence.

The Standard's article covered familiar ground in what it called Harvard's "Sins of Admission". It uncovered a white student, Brett Gerry, with a 4.04 grade point average at Colgate University who was turned down for political science PhD programmes at Harvard while he was accepted with scholarships at Yale and the University of Chicago; the implication being that duller minority students had taken his place. When the application from a student classed as an "under-represented minority" is sent out from the Harvard admissions office to graduate departments, it has a bright green sticker and a pink status sheet, the magazine reported.

"Top minority students who don't make the final merit cut get admitted in a separate category. They get full financial aid, regardless of need; non-minorities are assessed on their income and their parents." The article provocatively suggested that all it will take "is a student with a grievance" to challenge Harvard's programme in the courts. If such a student steps forward, he is likely to win backing from the conservative legal foundations in Washington that regularly take on such cases.

It may seem a far leap from the O. J. Simpson verdict to the collegiate admissions process, but it is not. Whites angered by the jury's decision, like whites who back an end to affirmative action, tend to believe that the era of institutional racism in the US is over. They feel themselves not to be racist, that despite isolated examples of racism the US is becoming a colour-blind society, and that minorities should no longer exploit history as an excuse.

Blacks, on the other hand, speak of just knowing that racism is out there, in a country where the black parents of an 18-year-old who makes it to college were themselves schooled in conditions of virtual apartheid. Their own parents would have been astonished to meet a black man with a fine arts degree. How, they ask, can the playing field be level, in the blink of an historical eye after centuries of racial oppression?

Thankfully there is more cross-over and room for compromise in the affirmative action debate than there appeared to be in the Simpson case. There are prominent black scholars, such as Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter, who see racial preferences in college admissions as an anachronism.

And anecdotally it appears the overwhelming majority of existing faculty members, regardless of race, back affirmative action. They include prominent figures such as chancellor Chang-Lin Tien of UC Berkeley. A Chinese American, he believes that Asian Americans still suffer discrimination and should be sensitive to it. California has a rapidly changing population an estimated 40 per cent of Los Angeles residents are now Latino and Long Beach boasts a Cambodian population second only to Phnom Penh and needs to see that represented in its universities, Tien and others argue.

Affirmative action is about "creating the best educational atmosphere for all students . . . for the benefit of the larger society," he told the New York Times earlier this year.

It is also hard to deny that the America of the past systematically discriminated against African Americans in the education system. Harvard used to have rigid quotas for Jews and Catholics. Black students were first admitted to white Southern universities quite literally at gun point. In some of those universities today, they are still tiny minorities recruited mainly for basketball or football teams by colleges willing to take a gamble on an athlete, but not apparently on an inspiring chemist or doctor.

In the US and the United Kingdom, there is a broad sense that equality of opportunity alone now means colleges have a duty to search out bright children from the bottom of the social scale whose abilities are equal to the products of Eton and Westminster but whose grades are not. In the US blacks and Hispanics are worse off than whites and thus more often fit racially-neutral profiles for disadvantaged students. Many college admissions officers feel strongly there is still much to do to open doors to minorities: black enrolment at major research universities, for example, actually fell, in some cases by close to a third, from 1980 to 1992.

But Purdue's programmes point to one particularly troublesome area: even where universities push up their admissions of minorities, they seem to struggle to hold on to them. Minorities now account for about 10 per cent of admissions. But while Purdue's graduation rate for its overall student population is 67 per cent, for Asians it is 73 per cent, for Hispanics 61 per cent, African Americans, 54 per cent, and Native Americans only 50 per cent. Many minorities find a white university campus hostile. In universities that cannot afford a generous financial package, their worse-off families can be frightened off by mounting student debt.

Even those who are sure O J Simpson was guilty never suggested that he was not smart and certainly not his black attorney Johnnie Cochran, celebrated as a new leader for blacks. In the affirmative action debate, however, lurking in the wings is the ugly face of what could be called the new racism.

In The Bell Curve, published in 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray examined evidence that blacks were genetically less intelligent as measured by IQ and other tests than whites. Though their theories were denounced both as shopworn and racist, the book has entered the debate. For those who are looking for racial stereotypes they are there to find, from the numbers of young black men involved in crime to the numbers on university basketball teams. The College Board recently released its surveys on SAT test averages. On verbal scores, blacks scored an average of 356, a 24-point increase on 20 years ago but trailing every racial group, in particular Asian Americans, with 416, and whites, with 446. The gap was wider on the maths portion: blacks scored 388 to 498 for whites and 538 for Asian Americans. At Harvard, black students had mean SAT scores of 1,290, 110 points below the mean score of white students.

There are obvious reasons why socio-economic factors, like the violent and anti-intellectual culture of an inner-city school, would affect test scores. But white and Asian American students, and the so-called "angry white males" who have emerged as an oft-quoted political phenomenon, cite them as evidence that affirmative action is now itself racist. In Washington, Bill Clinton treads the middle ground as ever, backing affirmative action but promising to scrutinise the programmes for fairness. But bills are being introduced across the US to limit affirmative action: Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Washington are all considering anti-affirmative action. The Republican congress is looking to eliminate the federally-funded "trio" programmes which often help minority students. As one university's minority recruiter put it: "You feel under siege and attack".

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