The 'Quota' Smokescreen | The Nation


The 'Quota' Smokescreen

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

George W. Bush mounted his bully pulpit on Martin Luther King's birthday and took aim at the University of Michigan's affirmative-action policies, calling them "a quota system." He tried to soft-pedal his quota-slinging rhetoric with an "I strongly support diversity of all kinds" statement and then fired off several more rounds of anti-quota talk directed at the "method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal." His sympathy for the goal but condemnation of the method harked back to the compassionate conservatism of white moderates in Birmingham in 1963, whose equivocations prompted Dr. King to write his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." King posited that the Ku Klux Klaner and the White Citizens Councilers may not be "the Negro's great stumbling block." Instead, he decried "the white moderate...who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.'"

About the Author

Lani Guinier
Lani Guinier, the Bennet Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is the co-author of The Miner's Canary:...

Also by the Author

The US military was deployed, the Bush Administration tells us, to bring
democracy to Iraq. But the military brass and the Administration have
apparently parted company on what democracy means in the United States,
as the Supreme Court arguments on April 1 in the University of Michigan
affirmative action cases made clear.

Solicitor General Ted Olson, arguing on behalf of the Administration,
attacked the Michigan law school admissions program as "constitutionally
objectionable" for naming racial diversity as a goal, "an end in and of
itself," in admissions. Several Justices quickly interrupted, directing
Olson's attention to the "military brief" filed in the case.

In that brief, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two
former defense secretaries and retired heads of the military academies
endorsed affirmative action as essential to national security in a
multiracial democracy. "The military," they said, "must be permitted to
train and educate a diverse officer corps" to circumvent the morale
problems and communication bottlenecks of the Vietnam era, when a
virtually all-white officer corps commanded large numbers of black and
Latino troops.

The military brass were clear on this: Democratic authority, and thus
military effectiveness, depends upon admissions procedures that recruit
and select a diverse group of potential leaders. Democracy as a whole,
like national security in particular, depends upon genuine,
representative leadership throughout the ranks.

The mission of public colleges and universities is also a democratic
one: to train leaders who can work with diverse groups of people, to
provide students the skills to participate in civic life, and to
encourage graduates to give back to the community, which, through taxes,
made their education possible. To perform this democratic mission,
public colleges must be able to select a racially, ethnically,
geographically and economically diverse class of students who will
enhance the educational environment while they are in school and
contribute to the public good after they graduate.

The Solicitor General and other opponents of affirmative action treat
admissions decisions to public colleges and law schools as if scarce
slots can be allocated based on individual merit unrelated to the sacred
democratic values that are at stake. And whenever race becomes an issue,
a multifaceted, democratic view of merit suddenly collapses into a
fealty to a "neutral" testing regime.

In fact, SAT and ACT scores often measure little more than the social
capital students bring to a single, timed test. The relationship of
scores to parental wealth far exceeds the relationship between test
scores and grades in college or success after graduation. Poorer
students and students of color, who on average perform less well on
these standardized tests than their richer and whiter peers, can do just
as well academically and professionally when given the chance. Evidence
from Texas shows that those admitted because they graduated in the top
10 percent of their high school class have higher grades as college
freshmen than those who are admitted based on their test scores. Even
more important, a study of Michigan's graduates found the black and
Latino lawyers were those most likely to serve underrepresented
communities and to fulfill public citizenship obligations generally.
Students with the highest test scores, by contrast, are less likely to
give back to the community that subsidized their education. Apparently
high scores communicate a sense of entitlement without responsibility.

The authors of a Century Foundation study, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen
Rose, call the overreliance on a single indicator such as test
performance "skinny merit." Through dependence on test scores, higher
education has become a gift the poor give to the rich. Poor people pay
taxes for rich people to attend elite public colleges and universities
where graduates gain, through networking and credentialing
opportunities, a large share of coveted posts in the public and private

Carnevale and Rose studied the family fortunes of students at the 146
most selective colleges and universities. We are, Carnevale says,
creating "an inequality machine" with a "brutally efficient sorting"
system that allows students from the upper quartile of income in the
country to fill three-fourths of the slots at these schools, while only
3 percent of students come from the bottom quartile. That ratio was
borne out in the research that produced the Texas 10 percent plan.
Historically, 75 percent of each freshman class there was filled by
students from 150 suburban and private high schools, in a state with
1,500 public high schools. At Michigan's flagship university, high
schools in the most affluent suburbs also dominate the freshman class.
Affirmative action diversifies the student body, at least around the
margins, by race and income. While whites from the highest income
quartile have cornered the admissions market at selective schools like
Michigan, black and Latino beneficiaries of affirmative action hover
around the middle of the economic indicators.

Democracy means access for all of the people, not just the elite. Yet it
is the military--rather than higher education--that is performing the
essential democratic function of breaking down rigid class and race
barriers. As Representative Charles Rangel points out, blacks and
Latinos, as well as working-class whites, are disproportionately
represented among the enlisted ranks.

Taxpayers subsidize public colleges to provide a representative group of
future leaders, to train those leaders in democratic citizenship, and to
enable them to problem-solve in a diverse society with a knowledge-based
economy. Even those who are ambivalent about the "diversity rationale"
should understand the democratic imperative for robust rather than
"skinny" merit in rationing access to higher education. "If you have an
all-black army and an all-white law school," University of Michigan law
professor William Miller told the New York Times, "something's not
right. The democracy, the risks and benefits, simply have to be better

A dynamic and democratic view of merit in higher education admissions
assures access to blacks and Latinos to selective public colleges and
law schools, trains potential leaders to serve all segments of the
society and legitimizes our democracy. The military brief cites the
chasm between the racial composition of officers and enlisted soldiers
as a "blaring wakeup call" that racial diversity is "critical" to "our
national security." The democratic stakes in the Michigan cases are just
as high.

The problems of people of color show what's wrong with American democracy.

We can have an honest disagreement about what constitutes a quota--or whether Michigan's approach is the most sensible one to achieve the school's laudable goals--but Bush's language and the dishonest characterization of Michigan's processes in the brief filed by his Solicitor General make such a conversation all but impossible. The strategy of the Administration brief is to "quotify" any aspect of the admissions process that dares notice the race of applicants. Even when the college admissions committee merely flags the files of underrepresented students of color for further review or the law school committee seeks--as a matter of informed educational policy--a critical mass of students of color to assure their participation in a robust exchange of views in the law school classroom, the Administration concludes that there is no meaningful distinction from strict numerical quotas. The bottom line in their judgment seems to be that any attention to race, whether it is a nuanced point system, as at the University of Michigan college, or a more flexible and individualized process, as at the Michigan law school, is simply a quota in disguise. And yet neither the Solicitor General nor the President offers any specific evidence that anyone at either the college or the law school was admitted or excluded "solely" or even primarily based on race.

Because race has a political, economic and social component, professor of psychology Patricia Gurin finds that when people who have lived on the darker side of our racial divide have access to our classrooms and our faculties, white and nonwhite students alike achieve better intellectual growth and improved capacity to participate in our multiracial democracy. The rhetoric of quotas shuts down the conversation about racially diverse classrooms and their relationship to the learning environment. It also diverts our attention from the real double-bind that distorts the face of higher education in America.

The first thread in the double bind is the artificial scarcity created by the overinvestment of state resources in prisons because of mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, which has starved educational budgets. As a result, many students who want to attend public institutions of higher education cannot, both because of rising tuition costs and because the competition for admission is fiercer than ever. And competition for the more selective public universities is especially tough, because the schools function less and less as educational greenhouses and more and more as status markers and gateways to elite networks.

The rising number of applications requires ever more efficient means of sorting candidates. This helps explain the second thread of the educational double-bind, our worship of simple, uniform measures of qualification, which I call "testocracy." The central problem is that Michigan, as is true of most elite educational institutions, has allowed its admissions standards to be driven by the rankings posted by a newsmagazine. No one wants to admit the dirty secret of higher education: In the name of merit as determined by U.S. News & World Report, the current system emphasizes efficiency and brand valuation over individualized assessments; test scores over initiative, persistence and creativity; and wealth over diversity.

The implicit message of Bush's statement and even more the brief filed by his Solicitor General is that attention to racial diversity, while laudable in the abstract, in practice subverts attention to qualifications based on merit. Yet their conception of merit is something of an optical illusion: High-stakes tests correlate well with socioeconomic status, but they are poor at predicting grades and totally unable to anticipate future career success. It was not affirmative action that kept the white plaintiffs out of Michigan; it was the mirage of merit (including commitments to social privilege and affluence) that was primarily responsible for their fate.

Bush himself was the beneficiary of this double standard, where we arbitrarily call something merit and thus it is so. In his day, merit was defined as "character," which gave a preference to white men of "good breeding" from what Nicholas Lemann calls the "Episcopacy." Today what we call merit is defined as scores on timed aptitude tests--creating the testocracy. And yet the testocracy fails to predict most of those who will perform well in college and afterward. Test scores are at best imperfect proxies for merit, since they correlate more strongly with grandparents' class status than with first-year college or law school grades. And what's more, at least in Bush's day, there was a certain self-consciousness that the privilege of admission should be accompanied by a need to serve--noblesse oblige. Today, our love affair with the testocracy grants its beneficiaries a false sense of entitlement. Students proceed as if a coveted slot in a selective school is their due reward, without any concomitant need to give back to the community that's subsidizing their education. As a result, a study of graduates at the Michigan law school found that those with the highest conventional entry scores were the least likely to become leaders in their community, to do public service or to mentor younger attorneys. At the same time, it was the black and Latino students who in fact were most successful in realizing all three elements of the law school's mission: financial satisfaction, career satisfaction and leadership in their community.

There are certainly alternatives to Michigan's process for assuring merit and diversity. There is much to recommend the Texas 10 Percent Plan--where the top 10 percent of the graduates of each high school in the state are automatically admitted to the two flagship public colleges. Black and Latino legislators, academics, advocates and activists who were genuinely committed to fairness and diversity initiated the plan. They succeeded in opening up access for blacks, Latinos and poor whites in numbers very close to their percentage under more traditional affirmative action. The plan is not only fair; it also promotes academic excellence. Those admitted under the plan outperform their counterparts who come in under the conventional testocracy. Whether white, black, Latino or Asian, the 10 percenters finish their first year of college with higher GPAs than other freshmen. The plan, however, does not apply at the graduate school level, a fact overlooked in the Administration's briefs. Liberal critics contend that the plan depends on segregated high schools to work. However, until the courts or state governments do something about segregated schools, this approach integrates one tier of the educational system, and if used at the elementary school level might integrate some magnet high schools as well.

But before we can have a meaningful conversation about alternative ways to achieve diversity, we first need to have an honest conversation about merit and opportunity. Test scores are not a fair or reliable way to distribute a scarce public resource, given the strength of their relationship to wealth rather than performance. Nor does the fictitious equation between test scores and merit actually fulfill the mission of public colleges to graduate students who go on to achieve individual goals, serve community needs and help society realize its democratic potential. With its incendiary use of the language of quotas, the Bush Administration shifts our attention from this long-overdue debate about the relationship of admissions standards across the board to the democratic mission of higher education in an increasingly multiracial and knowledge-based economy.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size