It is not difficult to see the source of this sense of disinclusion. It would be unusual if a race just a few decades past institutionalized racism did not bear the legacy of centuries of a justified distrust of the oppressor's frames of reference. The question which arises now, however, is this: Does this culturally ingrained sense of disinclusion from education ÷ as opposed to growing up under concrete, externally imposed disadvantage ÷ justify lowering the bar for middle class black students indefinitely?
In my opinion, the answer to this question is no. This is because despite its initial necessity, Affirmative Action in university admissions has always come at an extremely high price, begging curtailment at the earliest possible opportunity. This price has consisted of four factors.
One: As Stephen Carter has told us, the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action can never be sure of the extent to which their accomplishments were based upon their own merit. Nepotism and favors (as well as dumb luck) play a large part in the trajectory of most lives, but these things are a matter of chance. As an institutionalized leg up, Affirmative Action leaves black Americans with the most systematically diluted responsibility for their fate of any group in America. This perpetuates the fundamental insecurity already bedeviling a recently oppressed race, and reinforces blacks' general suspicion of whites' opinion of them. The white student who gets a letter announcing their admission to UC Berkeley can go out and celebrate a signal achievement, although the luck of the draw almost always plays some role in a white or Asian person's admission to a school. Can the black middle manager's daughter getting the same letter have the same sense of achievement if her SAT scores would have barred any white or Asian from admission? The truth is no ÷ she can only celebrate having been good enough among African-American students to be admitted.
Two: With it widely known among the student body that most minority students were admitted with test scores and GPAs which would have barred white and Asian applicants from consideration, it is difficult for many white students to avoid beginning to question the basic mental competence of black people as a race, especially when most black students are obviously of middle class background. A white person need not be a racist to start wondering about this ÷ black students could not help wondering the same thing about whites in a situation in which middle-class whites were almost all let in under the bar. This undermines the mutual respect which successful integration requires.
Three: When Affirmative Action was aimed at improving the lot of the disenfranchised, then its displacement of some qualified white applicants was in my view thoroughly justifiable in the name of a greater good. However, when aimed at admitting middle class black children, whites' complaints of reverse discrimination acquire more resonance. The defense that white athletes and children of the wealthy have always been admitted to elite universities under the bar is surely the weakest from the Affirmative Action camp. The common consensus has always held legacy students and semiliterate athletes with BAs in bad odor, and thus to argue that minority students ought be allowed the same privilege does not put us in the best company ÷ two wrongs do not make a right.
Not one but two black friends of mine reported the searing experience of revealing, during one of those late-night freshman-year hallway group discussions, that their test scores and/or GPAs had been lower than the norm for white students, only to be have an impolitic white student charge that they had taken someone's place. I could not help noticing that behind the indignation with which they recounted these events was the sad fact that in the end, neither had been able to effectively defend themselves, both coming from stable, two-parent homes and fine schools. Few undergraduates ÷ or even adults ÷ command the spontaneous rhetorical resources to explain the subtle cultural barriers to scholarly achievement among middle class black children; those with middle class upbringings are generally barely even aware of these things on a conscious level; and few of those that were would be comfortable directly applying such an analysis to themselves in any case. Clearly, encounters like these subvert the goal of peaceful integration.
Four: As applied primarily to middle-class black students, Affirmative Action becomes simply insulting ÷ especially given the lack of interest its advocates have in coherently defending its maintenance under such conditions. The implication has become that no matter how comfortable their lives, no matter what their opportunities have been, black children cannot be expected to manage test scores or GPAs as high as white and Asian students. Racism is surely not dead, but it vastly underestimates a person to declare that the extremely occasional and abstract nature of the racism the typical black child encounters in today's California makes it inappropriate to expect them to turn in an SAT score above 1000. Let us recall that the conscious life of a freshman entering Berkeley in fall 1998 began in the mid-1980s, not 1964 or even 1974 ÷ these students have only vague memories of Ronald Reagan being president!
These things said, I reiterate that Affirmative Action in university admissions and beyond was crucial thirty years ago. The benefits were well worth the cost of the four problems above. However, these problems have always conflicted in so many ways with effective integration that in university admissions, Affirmative Action is best seen as a desperate emergency measure, to be eliminated at earliest possible opportunity.
Indeed, one suspects that part of the reason even better-informed Affirmative Action advocates insist on depicting the policy as an opportunity for disadvantaged minorities is because it is virtually impossible to compellingly defend a policy aimed primarily at middle class minorities in the rabble-rousing sound-bite terms of rallies, flyers, and T-shirts. It would be a delicate matter indeed to rally the American public behind the idea of admitting middle class African-American students under the bar indefinitely on the grounds that African-American children tend to discourage each other from reaching that bar. Although the ultimate cause of this was bygone institutionalized discrimination, we can't do anything about that now ÷ today the problem is generated from within the community, and in such a way that external intervention cannot solve it. Affirmative Action can certainly give a student a Bachelor's Degree, but it cannot calibrate sociocultural attitudes ÷ if we hoped that it would indeed dilute the sense of separation black students feel from school and books, it is painfully clear that it has not and will not. Today the problem can only be solved from within, whether we be optimistic or pessimistic on the likelihood of this in the near future. Of course, as we have seen, some of middle-class black students' poor test scores and GPAs could be ascribed to lower-class cultural patterns persisting in some families despite rising incomes. The problem here, however, is a simple one: how could evaluators decide whether or not this was the case on the basis of a particular evaluation, an interview, or really anything less than living with each black applicant for a month?
The blanket abolition of Affirmative Action at UC schools was crude, although advocates of the policy are so resistant to constructive discussion that I suspect that this H-bomb approach was the only way to make any change at all. If it were up to me, I would follow many commentators on the subject and maintain Affirmative Action based on class. To the extent that Affirmative Action had actually been achieving its official goal of bringing disadvantaged minority students to Berkeley (which was slight, but nevertheless), this would maintain this obvious good, while extending the same privilege to the increasing ranks of white disadvantaged people. At this point, many will have already objected that the problem is with the very nature of the bar to be reached; specifically, that the emphasis in admissions on standardized tests is misguided, because their predictiveness of scholarly success is not absolute. This objection lends itself to two alternative solutions.
One would be to abolish standardized tests as a criterion for admission. Simply de-emphasizing them would not work: this year Berkeley did just this in evaluating undergraduate applications, but the discrepancy in scores was still so great that the number of minority admits plummeted nevertheless. However, the sheer volume of applications received would make this extremely difficult.
Thus as long as elite universities continue to use SAT scores and GPAs as a significant factor in admissions, then the other avenue would be to coordinate a concentrated effort to bring minority students' test scores up to the level of those of white and Asian students. We ought devote as much time to arguing for regular standardized testing starting in junior high school as we currently devote to issues such as classroom size, vouchers, computers, and phonics, especially in communities with large minority contingents (middle class ones most importantly). Minority students ought be encouraged to adopt the feverish use of SAT practice workbooks that Jewish high schoolers in Scarsdale do. It is often said that minority students cannot afford Kaplan courses and the like, but this again runs up against the fallacy that most Affirmative Action beneficiaries have been of humble origins. Many middle class families today could indeed afford such courses, especially since their proliferation has led to some competitive prices ÷ and in some areas there are even such courses aimed at minority students.
One almost never hears such a seemingly obvious prescription as this one in discussions of Affirmative Action, apparently out of a conviction that the problem is with reliance on the tests at all. However, the arguments levied for this position simply do not hold up.
For example, the old argument that SAT tests are culturally biased will not do anymore. It is unclear how this problem could apply in any significant way to middle class blacks who grew up shopping in the same stores, watching most of the same television shows and usually going to the same schools as their white equivalents, and nowadays often even dating them. The people who drag this one out these days never give examples that would apply to anyone who grew up outside of the cultural deprivation of a ghetto, and the writers of the SAT are now dedicated to the point of obssession to expunging their questions of any possible cultural bias.
There is also the going wisdom on campus that Affirmative Action admits end up performing at the level of white students in the end anyway, but this is based more on wishful thinking than reality. For one, black students remain considerably more likely to drop out before graduation than white students regardless of class. Furthermore, my years of teaching thus far have driven me to an unfortunate but painfully obvious conclusion: at Berkeley there is a sharp discrepancy between the average schoolroom performance of black students and white and Asian students. There are exceptions, of course, but too consistently for it to be accidental, I have found that the only way of avoiding flunking most of an all-black class has been to water down my lectures, write spoon-feeding examinations, and vastly lower my expectations for written assignments, and attendance is shockingly poor unless factored into the final grade. It is particularly dismaying to see the stark contrast in performance between these students and the occasional two or three white or Asian ones in such classes. As Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom have pointed out, it is hardly unreasonable to suspect a link between lower test scores and GPAs and this lackluster college performance. It is also clear to me that this tendency is a matter not of ability but attitude. Far from being embarrassed or frustrated, a great many of these students are almost smug about this behavior, a clear reflection of an a priori sense of cultural separation which most likely also depressed their high school GPAs and SAT scores. It would be considered extremely incorrect of me by many to air this discrepancy so bluntly, but any black professor attests to it privately (in which case they generally euphemize it with a sigh as "underpreparation", which would seem to undercut the prevailing wisdom that such students are as qualified as white ones).
Thus there is nothing unjust in the inevitable processing of standardized tests as a rite of passage ÷ namely, a crucible not necessarily pertinent to the whole range of skills needed in college, but a hurdle which members of the community are expected to have jumped to the extent that it is a challenging task with at least some perceptible application to college-level work. The prospective police officer who fails the entrance examination might well have made a fine officer, but no one decries the fundamental usefulness of the tests as a way of choosing candidates from a large pool of applicants. It is widely known that there are great teachers who fail teacher certification examinations and awful ones who pass, but again, we understand the usefulness of the examination nevertheless, and would be uncomfortable entrusting our children to a teacher who had not been able to pass it.
It follows that if there is a race-wide tendency to post low scores even among middle class students, then the solution is not to simply let these students loose in a culture in which they are saddled with an immediate badge of inferiority, but to do all that we can to enable them to ace the tests. How insurmountable a hurdle could it be for middle class children two generations past the Civil Rights Act to develop a knack for drawing some vocabulary analogies, performing some eighth grade math, and solving a few logic problems within a set amount of time?
To be sure, there would be an unpleasant by-product of this approach: it would take several years before the effects of such an effort resulted in an increase in the numbers of minority students admitted to Berkeley. However, this would be a temporary drop in the minority population, intended as an intermediate stage in a project explicitly devoted to bringing minority students into the school.
Moreover, one thing which has been completely lost in the campus "discussion" is that this, after all, is UC Berkeley, considered the best public university in the state and one of the best in the country. There is an argument that at least some schools be reserved for students who give all indication of performing at a particularly outstanding level, in order to provide the most nurturing student atmosphere possible. One could argue that to the extent that letting any student in under the bar entails running a risk that the student may not perform at the level expected, that set-asides be emphasized less at such institutions. Thus during the interim period I have mentioned, many of the black students refused admission to Berkeley according to the standards applied to whites and Asians would be admitted to other UC schools, as well as to other fine California universities with less stringent admissions standards. The cumulative difference a degree from one of these schools as opposed to Berkeley would make in their futures would be minimal in the long run, especially since the moderate numbers of black admits to Berkeley would be a temporary situation. The goal here is for every black student at Berkeley to know that their admission had been based not on things as abstract as wrongs done to their ancestors, or a racism which the typical young middle class black person encounters only in vestigial, ambiguous form, nor upon anything else which people are barely comfortable arguing for in full voice. Instead, their admission would be based upon their having hit the same high note as the white students. Surely this is better than asking middle class black students to content themselves with being compared to legacy students and athletes slipped in under the door.