Race-based admissions policies must go

The litigation over race-based admissions policies is probably the most important case the Supreme Court will decide in its current term. Those who think that it’s somehow progress for government institutions to treat classes of individuals differently because of their ancestry are pulling out all the stops to defend race-based admissions policies, including an intellectually dishonest argument that diversity enhances education and cries that the sky will fall if schools like the University of Michigan can’t stack the deck in favor of applicants in certain groups. Here are a few thoughts on this momentous case.

The Fourteenth Amendment says that governments must extend equal protection under the law to all citizens. No playing favorites. None of that Orwellian “all citizens are equal, but some are more equal than others” stuff.

That rule makes perfectly good sense. Governments produce enough bad, special interest legislation when they’re just aiding economic interests such as labor unions or dairy farmers; if they could also legislate so as to assist (or hinder) people based on race and other personal attributes, things would really get ugly. In his book Preferential Policies, economist Thomas Sowell shows just how nasty the ethnic disputes have become in other nations that have gone further than the U.S. in deciding who gets what based on group membership.

The Supreme Court has held that states may employ race-based classifications only when they are the only way to achieve some “compelling state interest.” In my opinion, that is virtually a null set, but that’s beside the current point. The defenders of race-based admission policies at Michigan and many other state universities claim that having a “diverse” student body enhances education, which is presumably a compelling state interest, and therefore the policies that favor students of certain groups over others are not unconstitutional.

The “research” that backs up the educational enhancement claim was cooked up by the University of Michigan just for this case, and has been as thoroughly demolished as any argument ever has been. If you want to read such a demolition, check out the amicus curiae briefs submitted in the two Michigan cases by the National Association of Scholars. They can be found at www.nas.org. The NAS briefs crush the “diversity improves education” argument at so many points that I can only mention a few.

When you hear the contention that diversity improves education, you’d naturally think that the university had proof that students learn their subjects better if they’re in classrooms with just the ideal mixture of students. On its face, that would seem to be a highly dubious point. How is a student’s comprehension of calculus or chemistry possibly affected by the racial composition of the class? But Michigan’s argument on “educational improvement” is not based on the learning of subject matter. Rather, the “improvement” they claim is various student attitudes that correlate with liberal politics.

Moreover, Michigan contends that it can only achieve that “educational improvement” if it is able to create a “critical mass” of minority students. Critical mass here is a euphemism for quota. But the NAS points out that there’s no evidence that a “critical mass” is needed for the so-called educational improvements. Michigan says that a “critical mass” is essential so that the minority students won’t feel “isolated.” But we are talking about young adults here, not first graders, and moreover, colleges and universities are supremely accommodating, unthreatening places with or without racial quotas.

The learning environment of a college or university will be no worse if students are admitted only on the basis of academic ability. In fact, it could very well be improved by de-emphasizing race. Among the unfortunate consequences of the “critical mass” approach is a demand for “ethnic studies” courses that are notoriously low on educational content, but high on incitement to feelings of victimization. More real learning would take place on campuses if the center of attention were shifted away from “diversity” and once again put on education.

But without “affirmative action” (that is, quotas), wouldn’t our universities become all white (and Asian), thus shutting off upward mobility for blacks and other minority groups? That’s the sky will fall argument, but it won’t stand up. The use of racial admission quotas does not lead to an increase in the total number of minority students, but only leads to their redistribution. The most academically challenging schools, such as the University of Michigan, wind up with more minority students than they would if academic preparation were all that mattered, but if Michigan just admitted students based on merit, those who didn’t make it into the flagship university in Ann Arbor would instead go to some other school such as Wayne State, where they would be a better academic fit.

Colleges and universities are not identical when it comes to the level of work that’s expected of students. What racial admission quotas do is to ensure that some minority students enroll in top-flight schools that are too demanding for them. That’s no benefit to anyone.

The U.S. needs to give up its silly fixation on race. Groups don’t have rights – individuals do. The only wise and moral policy is for the government to protect the rights of all individuals. Race-based admissions are unconstitutional, divisive, and wasteful. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan without equivocation.