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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Real Diversity After Bakke

Culture Race

With the Supreme Court about to decide a set of cases that could overturn its 1978 Bakke decision and require color-blind admissions at colleges and universities, it’s a good time to describe what a postaffirmative-action admissions policy at a top school should look like — and explain why it would be fully compatible with minority success and real diversity.

The raison d’etre of the nation’s selective universities is to forge a well-educated, national elite. Thus, our post-preferences approach to admissions must be meritocratic, though few people would want schools simply to choose students with the best SAT scores and grades and call it a day.

Back in the early 1980s,at Simon’s Rock Early College in Massachusetts,a smattering of my classmates fell into the 1,600 category. But thankfully, the school’s administrators grasped that that kind of achievement represents only one of the forms of excellence that smart young people can bring to campus life. The school worked hard to attract a lively mix of students, who vastly enriched my years on campus. My cello playing, for example, took on new depth, because I had the opportunity to play with a brilliant musician whose talents on piano and violin scaled near-professional heights.

At school,I also met my first Mennonite and my first white Southerner. There were other blacks among the school’s 300 or so students, too. Most, like me, were middle class, but there was one guy who had grown up in crumbling Camden, N.J.This student gave a lesson in one form of cultural "blackness" to his white classmates — he had real "street" cred. But far more important,after a rocky start and some coaching, he also proved he could do the schoolwork on the high level the school demanded.This was real diversity.

Since my undergraduate days, however, elite universities have come to mean something much different when they speak of "diversity": having as many brown faces on campus as possible, regardless of standards. The origin of the current notion of diversity was Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion for the court in Bakke. Though strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, Justice Powell argued, schools could still use race as an "important element" in admissions in order to create a "diverse" campus that would enhance the quality of all students’ educational experiences by exposing them to minority "opinions."

Justice Powell’s argument was dishonest, in that it wasn’t at bottom about broadening white students’ horizons but providing a rationale for admitting blacks and Hispanics much less qualified than other applicants. Even on its own terms, however, Justice Powell’s "diversity" argument is demeaning and offensive to minorities.What would be a black "opinion" on French irregular verbs? Or systolic pressure? The "black"views that most interest diversity advocates, of course, are those that illumine social injustice.

Black students understandably can find this whole diversity regime repugnant and even racist. "Professor McWhorter," students have asked me, "what about when I am called on for my opinion as a black person in class? Is it fair that I have to deal with that burden?" A continent away, the undergraduate-written "Black Guide to Life at Harvard" insists: "We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world."

Even as we seek diversity in the worthy, Simon’s Rock sense, we must recognize that students need to be able to excel at college-level studies.The problem, then, is to find some way to measure a student’s potential that still leaves administrators enough leeway to ensure that campus life benefits from a rich variety of excellences and life experiences.

As it turns out, we have — and use — the measure: the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Nowadays, a creeping fashion dismisses the SAT as culturally biased. But while it is true that the SAT is far from perfect, the exam really does tend to forecast students’ future success, as even William Bowen and Derek Bok admit in their valentine to racial preferences, "The Shape of the River."

A post-preferences admissions policy must accept that below a certain cut-off point in SAT scores,a student runs a serious risk of failing to graduate.As Thomas Sowell, among others, has shown, placing minorities in schools that expect a performance level beyond what they have been prepared to meet leads to disproportionate dropout rates — 41% of the black students in Berkeley’s class of 1988, to take one typical example, did not complete their education, compared with 16% of whites.Many of these students may have flourished at slightly less competitive schools.

To prevent this kind of damage, the SAT could supply us with the rough parameters within which our admissions search for different kinds of merit — diversity, rightly understood — will proceed. Within our SAT range, there will be plenty of room for judgment calls. Grades, extracurricular activities, and character will all be key.Our admissions policy will be color-blind, but it won’t ignore the working class and the poor — many of whom, as a practical matter, will be blacks or Hispanics.

The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, is already on the right track. Not so long ago, the admissions committee I sat on matter-of-factly chose middle-class brown students, essentially "white" culturally, over equally deserving white students.I felt tremendous discomfort over the practice. Since California voted in a 1997 referendum to ban the use of race in admissions, things have changed. Berkeley still assesses students on grades and scores, but instead of race, it now considers the "hardships" that young men and women may have overcome while excelling at school.We recently gave fellowships, for example, to two needy white students who had shown sterling promise. I felt fundamentally right about these fellowships. "This is a racially blind process," emphasizes the chair of Berkeley’s faculty committee on admissions, Calvin Moore.

The idea of a "racially blind process"makes today’s "diversity" fans shudder, since they believe that it will lead to a tragic re-segregation of the best American universities and thus of American society. I’m sorry, but this is manipulative melodrama. In an America several decades past the Civil Rights Act, where far more black families are middle class than are poor, many black students will be ready for the top schools without dragging down the bar of evaluation.

Since the banning of racial preferences in California, there has been a 350% rise in the number of black teens taking calculus in preparation for college. Challenge people, and they respond.

It’s time to step up to the plate. My years on college campuses have taught me that even those willing to acknowledge the injustices of preferences in private uphold the "diversity" party line in public — something Bakke allows them to do. Indeed, 25 years of Bakke show that, in practice, even a hint that race can be "a" factor in admissions will give college administrators, ever eager to "do the right thing," the go-ahead to continue fostering a second-tier class-within-a-class of "spunky" minorities on their campuses.

Justice Powell’s Bakke opinion cited an amicus brief for "diversity" submitted by Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. The brief described how these schools had traditionally aimed to compose their classes with a mixture of "students from California, New York and Massachusetts; city dwellers and farm boys; violinists,painters and football players; biologists, historians and classicists; potential stockbrokers, academics and politicians."It’s a wonderful,noble goal,this diversity — and we don’t need to treat any group of citizens as lesser beings to accomplish it.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun