Blacks and Hispanics Don’t Need Racial Preference Laws

As California shows, minorities get into good schools all the same

University of Michigan officials are apoplectic that state voters approved a ballot initiative forcing them to stop using race in the admissions process. But California’s decade-long experience with race-neutral polices shows that minorities and diversity do quite well without them. It’s the grand social engineering plans of university administrators that don’t fare so well.

The victory in Michigan – despite the opposition of the entire elite establishment including business, labor, universities and both political parties – is likely to trigger similar initiatives elsewhere. Indeed, the godfather of the movement to end racial preferences, black California businessman Ward Connerly, is already talking about launching simultaneous initiatives in Illinois, Missouri and Colorado. His efforts will be aided by the fact that none of the dire effects on minorities that his opponents predicted ever materialized in California. The Golden State hasn’t become the bastion of re-segregation since banning the use of race and gender in college admissions in 1996.

Black and Hispanic enrollments at two of the state’s most selective public schools – Berkeley and UCLA – dropped by half after voters ended racial preferences, but the overall population of minority students across the entire University of California system remained stable. Minorities didn’t drop out, they went to other colleges. Indeed, universities such as UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside all saw their minority enrollments rise, with Riverside alone reporting a 240 percent increase in black enrollments.

The end result is that California is graduating more blacks and Hispanics now than before. Black and Hispanic graduation rates in the UC system have doubled from 26 percent in 1995 to 51 percent in 2001 – on par with white and Asian graduation rates.

Furthermore, the spots vacated by black and Hispanic students at UCLA and Berkeley have not all gone to whites. At Berkeley, Asians have captured most of them. At UCLA, whites and Asians have split them. In both schools, Asians now represent more than 40 percent of the student population even though they are only 12 percent of the general population in the state. This means that California’s elite colleges are the first among their national peers to treat Asians fairly.

Asians applying to the top universities don’t benefit from minority preferences – because they are not regarded as under-represented. At the same time, Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal recently documented that since Asians are often first-generation immigrants, they don’t qualify for legacy preferences either. The result is that they lose out both to less qualified black and white students. Asians need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians on standardized tests just to be in the game.

All of this suggests that if university administrators were serious about diversity, they would not be protesting race-neutral policies – but legacy preferences. It is legacies that lock in a system of group privilege. So why not end them? Money. Legacy preferences keep alumni dollars rolling in.

As for race-neutrality, the fear is not necessarily a return to lily white campuses, but that such policies might not produce the kind of diversity universities have in their heads, namely proportional representation. The only way to guarantee that is through a complex admissions system that gives university officials great discretion for racial balancing. But the irony – and danger – of such a system is that it could just as well be used against minorities as for them.

This is not a hypothetical worry. As Jerome Karabel wrote in The Chosen: Hie Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, current admission policies, with their heavy reliance on essays and recommendation letters, were devised by the Ivies in the 1930s to limit the number of Jews on campus.

By emphasizing “character” and “leadership traits” – and deemphasizing academic merit – it gave white students a leg up over Jews. In fact, Harvard invoked the diversity mantra to reject more qualified Jews from the Northeast in favor of less qualified whites from elsewhere.

Beneath all the lofty rhetoric, university presidents are really fighting for a socially engineered system of racial spoils. Connerly, however, wants students to control their own destinies. And it is not hard to see why voters are siding with Connerly and choosing a color-blind society.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is here and Reason’s education research and commentary is here.