News and Features
Late one night in October 1961, I flew from Atlanta to Jackson,
Mississippi, with Bob Moses.
Benjamin Elijah Mays--devout Christian minister, uncompromising advocate
for justice, career educator and longtime president of Morehouse College
in Atlanta--was called the "Schoolmaster of the
Eric Foner was an expert witness in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan law school case.
In one of its most important cases in decades, the Supreme Court on June
23 upheld the prerogative of colleges and universities to give
preferences to members of minority groups in admissions.
Of all the columns I've written, never have I gotten more mail than for
the following sentence: "It will not matter that the Dixie Chicks play
to full, cheering houses, while their current albu
Emboldened by the "success" of its preventive war in Iraq, the Bush
Administration appears to be expanding its preventive law-enforcement
strategy at home.
Who's really behind the crude equation between Israel and "the Jews"?
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
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
David L. Kirp has chronicled the Mount Laurel, New Jersey, history in Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community (Princeton).
On April 1 the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases on whether to overturn the 1978 Bakke decision and ban consideration of race as
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