Earlier this year, Sonia Sotomayor appeared on ABC’s the week to plug her new book, My Beloved World. ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos declared that the Supreme Court Justice “knows that affirmative action made a difference in her life, and believes it’s still necessary.”
“There’s been a lot of scholarly work that says it’s not the best way to insure diversity in schools, and maybe if you focus on where people live, and how much money they make, you can get the same results, in a way that is less fractious.”
To which the Justice responded,
“…the problem with that answer is that it doesn’t work….it’s not that I don’t believe that it doesn’t work, it’s that the statistics show it doesn’t work.”
Sotomayor, as you may recall, read a lengthy dissent in Schuette v. Coalition, the case which determined that states may ban racial preferences in higher education – a conclusion Sotomayor vehemently disagreed with.
Unmentioned in this discussion were the words "quotas" or "Bakke." After being twice rejected by UC Davis medical school, Allen Bakke sued. His suit alleged that UC Davis’s two tiered admissions process, for whites and non-whites, violated his rights under both the fourteenth amendment and the civil rights act.
UC Davis medical school had two separate admissions programs: a regular program, and a special program intended to help disadvantaged students. Applicants to the special program would compete against each other, and would not be compared to regular applicants. Importantly, the special program accepted applicants with college GPA’s below 2.5.
Ostensibly intended for the disadvantaged of all races, the special program had never accepted a white applicant, although many had applied. Also, racial minorities composed a majority of the committee members who determined admission to the special program. UC Davis also denied that the special admissions program operated as a quota; the Supreme Court disagreed.
The Supreme Court found UC Davis’s admissions scheme to be unconstitutional, and ordered UC Davis to admit Allen Bakke to medical school. The court’s ruling explicitly stated that both quotas and two-tiered systems were unconstitutional -- something confirmed by future Supreme Court rulings.
The court did allow an exception to this general prohibition on the use of race or ethnicity. Colleges could consider race as a factor, if they used it in the same manner as they did other factors. Colleges could not reserve spots for different ethnic or racial groups, but they could consider the value that a student from an under-represented group would bring. This would be the fig leaf that allowed colleges to pursue their racial and ethnic balancing schemes.
At the 2013 University of Michigan “Future of Campus Diversity Symposium,” the fig leaf came right off. Attorney Mark Rosenbaum – fresh from convincing the Sixth Circuit court of appeals that Michigan’s ban on racial preferences violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment – delivered the second keynote address.
After telling his audience that “diversity is about how one lives a life,” and “is about respecting the dignity of every single person,” he got down to brass tacks. Bans on racial and gender preferences in higher education had reduced the enrollment numbers of some ethnic and racial groups. According to Rosenbaum, Michigan’s ban on racial preferences in admissions caused African American freshman enrollment to decline from 8.1% to 5.2% at the University of Michigan. “In a state where the number of African American’s are between fifteen and twenty percent,” Rosenbaum informed his audience.
And this isn’t just talk. Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radcliffe studied admissions preferences at both public and private institutions. Although they wouldn’t characterize it this way, their data clearly shows that both public and private institutions employ admissions preferences for the purpose of balancing their racial and ethnic demographics.
When comparing similar applicants to highly selective private schools, being black instead of white is worth the equivalent of 310 extra SAT points, being Hispanic instead of “non-Hispanic white” is worth the equivalent of 130 SAT points, and being Asian instead of white costs you the equivalent of 140 SAT points.
At public institutions, being Hispanic instead of non-Hispanic white doesn’t help your odds much, the equivalent of .3 ACT points. But at these same institutions, being black instead of white increases your odds of acceptance by the equivalent 3.8 ACT points, and being Asian instead of white decreases the odds of acceptance by the equivalent of 3.4 ACT points.
These statistics can only be explained as deliberate efforts at demographic balancing.
The numbers become even more disturbing when one considers social class. At public institutions, socio-economic factors play little role in admissions, but the same cannot be said for private ones. Non-white applicants from lower class backgrounds enjoy considerable class-based affirmative action; not so for whites. Whites are the only group where lower class applicants have less chance at being admitted than middle class applicants; in this case, the numbers are 8% and 28% respectively. For comparisons sake, 81% of lower class, and 50% of middle class, black applicants are accepted.
Elite private institutions, all of which receive federal and state money, offer class-based admissions preferences to every group except one: whites. While offering financial aid and admissions preferences to low-income people of other races, these institutions treat poor white kids as an unwanted financial burden. Imagine the outrage if government benefits granted to everyone else were denied to any other group aside for whites. In his Bakke opinion, Justice Powell specifically cited the denial of surplus food stuffs to African Americans as an example of unequal treatment.
When we debate race-conscious admissions, we have to debate such programs as they exist, not as we would like them to be. When a college administrator says that it is unacceptable for the proportion of under-represented groups to fall below a certain threshold, for all intents and purposes, he is calling for a quota. To those who support these programs, do you support quotas?
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