Beware this benign racism

June 18, 1999

As Britain's universities look for ways to boost the number of academics from ethnic minorities, Martin Trow issues a stark warning from the US, where positive discrimination is coming under fierce attack

In the United States, as in Britain, people of goodwill have for many decades hoped to find ways to increase the numbers of students from social, racial and ethnic groups that were markedly under-represented in colleges and universities. Throughout this century, universities have been the gateway to leadership, most obviously in government, the professions and intellectual life. Now a higher education becomes central to success in our economies as well, beyond the level of small retail enterprise.

As the rate of change throughout our societies has accelerated, the role of knowledge and of the capacity to learn throughout life have become increasingly powerful determinants of life chances. And for all those concerned with equalising those life chances among social and racial groups, the dramatic differences in university attendance among those groups has been a standing reproach and a motivation to find solutions.

The sources of these differences in academic performance and university attendance, which can be very large, are complex and are located far back in history and deep in our contemporary societies. Some sources lie in family patterns, in the ways children are reared. Some lie in the markedly different educational opportunities available to different racial and ethnic groups. These fundamental sources of inequalities are difficult to overcome and are slow to respond to public action.

A quicker and easier way to achieve apparent equality of opportunity seems to be through giving preference for university admission to people who are or claim to be members of "under-represented" groups in a given institution or system. This practice, known in the United Kingdom as "positive discrimination", is under sharp attack in the US, both in the courts and in state elections that permit direct voting on substantive issues of this kind.

Racial and ethnic preferences in public institutions have recently been prohibited by law in California and Washington State, and other states may soon follow suit. Discriminatory policies have also been struck down in a series of state and federal court decisions. Why?

Whatever the motives of those who support positive discrimination in higher education, there are three kinds of reasons to reject such policies, reasons rooted in American experience that may have their counterparts in British life and society. The first is the moral sense, held strongly by many Americans, that it is simply wrong to base any public policy on the skin colour or eye shape or national origins of citizens. However benign the motive, whatever the euphemism by which it is referred, to discriminate among citizens on the basis of their race or ethnicity is simply racism and incompatible with the norms of a democratic society.

As a Supreme Court Justice put it recently: "At the heart of the (US) constitution's guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the government must treat citizens as individuals, not as simple components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class."

In a century that has seen the most horrendous crimes committed against people solely because of their racial or ethnic identities, we should be especially wary of again discriminating on the basis of precisely the same criteria - of race, national origins, sexual identity or sexual preference.

A second reason for rejecting positive discrimination lies in the unintended consequences that flow from that kind of discrimination - consequences for the larger society, for the groups discriminated against and for the recipients of the "positive discrimination". The very existence of "positive discrimination" puts the achievements of all members of preferenced groups under suspicion, even when they have not been recipients of any preference.

The authors of a recent defence of race and ethnic preferences in US universities, William Bowen and Derek Bok, claim on the basis of a survey that the recipients of these preferences did not resent their privileges. But a survey questionnaire is a poor instrument for uncovering the complex ambivalent feelings associated with being the recipient of racial preference. Long acquaintance with minority students taught me how conflicted many are about the costs of being - or worse, being assumed by others to be - an "affirmative-action student".

But the costs of "positive discrimination" are felt widely, not least by the groups discriminated against. One consequence of "affirmative action", largely neglected in the literature justifying racial preferences of some groups, is the exclusion of other groups. On the East Coast of the US, where most private elite research universities are located, the excluded are mostly white. As the symbolic representatives of the advantaged and repressive groups in American history, they gain little sympathy. And the private universities may choose to prefer only blacks, and thus those excluded are not only white but apparently few in number.

But American public research universities, including the University of California, do not have that dubious privilege; before the referendum (Proposition 209) in California outlawing racial preferences was passed in 1996, the University of California was required by federal law to include a variety of other racial and ethnic groups among those preferred, chief among them students of Hispanic origins. Moreover, in California, those disadvantaged by their racial and national origins were more likely to be Asians, who outnumber whites on the most selective University of California campuses, Berkeley and UCLA. These "Asians" include a very wide variety of backgrounds - old and new Chinese immigrants, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese of various kinds, Indonesians, Koreans, and more. (Indians and Pakistanis were also not included among the preferenced groups, as they had been successful enough to gain entry without special advantages.) Of course, the enormous range of diversity among "Asians" gained no recognition from supporters of ethnic and racial "diversity". On the contrary, the preference policies in California were a way of controlling the numbers of "Asians" in the University of California. No one actually said that, except occasional visitors such as President Clinton, who came to Sacramento in 1995 campaigning against the ending of racial preferences, and warned Californians of the dangers of abolishing them. Beware, he said, "there are universities in California that could fill their entire freshman classes with nothing but Asian Americans". We are reminded of similar concerns about the Jewish peril to elite Eastern private colleges and universities throughout the first half of this century, and the quotas to limit their numbers that were dismantled only after the second world war, persisting at some universities into the 1950s.

Few leaders of top private research universities today would defend their racist exclusionary policies of the past. But these same leaders have no difficulty defending similar policies that exclude other people, with other skin colour and eye configurations. The difference presumably lies in the malign motives in the earlier racial exclusions and the benign ones today. But the consequences are remarkably similar. Students otherwise fully qualified for entry to a university are excluded because of their skin colour or national origins. And a further irony is that some of the "Asians" who suffer this "benign" discrimination are the grandsons and granddaughters of people confined to relocation camps during the second world war in another, now widely regretted, expression of public racism in America.

A third ground for rejecting the appeals of "positive discrimination" lies in the difficulty of administering such a policy without creating new and impossible dilemmas for both students and administrators. Before racial preferences in public institutions were abolished in California, the university in effect said to applicants of mixed race: "You must choose between your father and your mother in marking the race/ethnicity box on the admissions form. If you choose the preferred race, you are more likely to be admitted to Berkeley and to get additional financial support. If you choose the other race or ethnicity, your chances of admission are poorer. If you check the box labelled "other" or refuse to choose at all, we will treat you as if you were white, ie negatively preferred."

It cannot be right for any public institution to force a student whose parents are, say, Asian and Hispanic to choose between his father and mother in asserting his own ethnic identity. Such students often resist those pressures, asserting with pride the dual or multiple nature of their ethnic roots. But group preferences reward one identity and punish the other. It is indefensible for public policy to force that choice.

To reward a check in a box also invites fraud, especially when it appears to be a victimless crime (the person with the wrong skin colour who will be excluded thereby is a very dim figure indeed). In addition, at most big public American universities there is no way such fraud could be uncovered. When race preferences were being applied on University of California campuses, no efforts were ever made to verify the truth of a claim to a preferred race or ethnicity. Indeed, when asked about this, an admissions office official replied indignantly: "We are not in the business of enforcing Nuremberg laws." Precisely. The Nazis employed the Nuremberg laws to define exactly what fraction of "impure" blood would deprive "non-Aryans" of citizenship and, eventually, of life.

In California, however different the motives and consequences, any efforts to establish the truth of claims to some preferred category would require, first, that the university or some other agency set forth what fraction of a blood line would qualify and then define the procedures for testing those claims. In some smaller universities the names of students claiming a preferred origin might be given to a student group on campus to investigate. But, at the University of California, students were and are ethnically anonymous, if they choose to be. Moreover, on the slight chance that a fraudulent claim to a preference was uncovered, no penalties would have been imposed. Indeed, penalties would have required a formal statement of the conditions of blood and origin that would qualify for the preference, and that would return the university to the Nuremberg dilemma. Wisely, it chose not to do that.

Ethnic and racial preferences appear to provide quick and easy solutions for the inequalities in academic performance among ethnic and racial groups. But they mask the real problems in society and its schools that underlie those differences in academic performance among ethnic and racial groups. There are better ways to attack the sources of those differences. One of them is to improve the quality of the schools for children of all racial and ethnic origins, perhaps especially schools in the central cities that so many minority children attend. A second way is to find ways of encouraging children with academic promise from poor homes to raise their academic ambitions, to qualify and then to apply for university entry. A third would be to provide really adequate financial aid for students from poor homes who show academic promise.

We in America are discovering that all "positive discrimination" accomplishes is to shift a handful of the most talented (and usually the most economically advantaged) minority students from the most highly selective universities into other excellent, if slightly less selective, universities. A society and its universities can pay a high price in their integrity as meritocratic institutions and as important agencies of democratic public policy, for these modest gains. And the gains may be greater for the politicians, civil servants and academic leaders who impose those policies on resistant societies than they are for the recipients of those dubious preferences.

After two decades in the US, national policies of "positive discrimination" have created a body of deeply committed partisans who make up a large and powerful "affirmative action community" inside every selective college and university, its members, persuaded of their moral superiority and largely impervious to argument, bound together by ties of patronage and jobs as well as by ideology. The US is in the process of throwing off these costly and failed forms of "benign" racism. Britain should be wary about going down that same road; it is a slippery slope and a hard way back.

Martin Trow is professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is drawn in part from his essay "California After Racial Preferences" in The Public Interest, No. 135, Spring 1999.

* Should British universities take positive action to recruit and promote more ethnic minority academics?

Email us on How many v-cs are black? page 20

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns