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Jewish World Review April 11, 2000 /7 Nissan, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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A pro-minority plan draws the ire of the left

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE ONCE PROUD U.S. Civil Rights Commission is about to hit a new low. According to a story leaked to the Washington Times, it will attack Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" plan as an "unprovoked stealth acknowledgement that segregation . . . will never change." It's fair to say that this statement is a bit overwrought. One Florida is an attempt to save affirmative action programs, which are in deep trouble with the public and the courts, by repackaging them in nonpreferential terms. Instead of racial preferences at state colleges, the top 20 percent of every public high school class would be admitted without regard to race, a plan that would clearly raise the number of blacks and Latinos in the colleges. To be eligible, students must take 19 college prep courses.

But the race and gender lobby does not want to be rescued, at least by a Republican governor and brother of the Republican presidential nominee in an election year. Jesse Jackson warned that One Florida could undermine the entire national economic boom. Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, calls the plan "Jim Crow Jr." A minister calls it "racist and biased and full of hate." At protest rallies, speakers brought up George Wallace, the Klan, Amos and Andy, and whites-only water fountains. Irrational outbursts rained down on all sides.

This reaction is truly peculiar, since Bush's plan seems like an attempt to head off a referendum that would strike down all race preferences in state jobs, contracts, and college admissions. Polls show that the referendum, temporarily tied up on dubious grounds by Florida's activist supreme court, would likely pass by better than 2 to 1. The obvious conclusion is that to the race establishment, preferences are not one tool among many to advance minorities. No, preferences have achieved a kind of religious or cult status and cannot be abandoned, no matter what the courts and the public think. This is a formula for more division and strife.

Brotherly love. Bush had his own political reasons, of course. Having a racially charged issue on the ballot in November could hurt brother George nationally as well as in Florida. Jeb Bush's plan could be looked on as an attempt to position both Bush brothers as antipreferences but pro-affirmative action, which is where polls show most Americans want to be. But on the whole, One Florida is an honorable effort to grapple with a problem most politicians don't want to touch. Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a longtime opponent of preferences, calls it "a conceptual framework to move forward from one of the most painful and divisive conflicts wracking America." It includes heavy increases in need-based college financial aid and a free PSAT for every high school sophomore.

But there are problems. The 20 percent solution will work only because so many black and Latino students are concentrated in low-performing schools. This gives the state a stake in perpetuating de facto segregation. Though racial classification is abolished, its rough effects could remain: Many lower-performing minority students can still leapfrog over high-performing whites and Asians. Racial preferences are blurred, not eliminated. Courts may figure this out. In civil rights litigation, laws that appear neutral are suspect if they work to discriminate by effect. Since One Florida was clearly engineered to ensure no net loss of minority enrollments in the state system, it could be (and should be) just as vulnerable in the courts as an outright preference system.

Another perverse result of the plan is that bad schools have no incentive to improve, since a huge percentage of their students will get into decent colleges no matter how poorly they are taught. Parents are also encouraged to shop for bad schools, where their academically average children will have a better shot at college. Shopping for bad schools is already a topic on radio talk shows in California, where the University of California will have to admit 4 percent of each high school's graduating class, starting with the seniors of 2001.

The biggest problem may be that we don't know what a 20 percent plan will do to the colleges. In Texas, where the Hopwood decision struck down preferences, the legislature decided to admit 10 percent of each class beginning in 1998. This is regarded as a major experiment and educators are holding their breath. Will the students from lower-ranking schools get real college educations, or will they be bogged down in remediation or shunted into Mickey Mouse classes intended for football players?

Colleges can be sent downhill quickly by taking too many unprepared students. In the 1970s, New York's City University instantly transformed itself into a remedial high school by taking 50 percent of each graduating class, and hasn't recovered yet. Colleges know they can't set the bar that low but don't know where the tipping point is and would prefer not to think about it. If state college systems begin to tip, better students and faculty will drift to private colleges, leaving a second-rate system behind.

These are the problems involved in the social engineering of "diversity," as opposed to maintaining standards and spending whatever it costs to help all students prepare to meet them.


JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.

Up

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03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
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© 2000, John Leo