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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 1999 /27 Kislev, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Ensuring racial differences -- REMEMBER PRESIDENT CLINTON'S 1995 promise to "mend affirmative action, not end it"? He did virtually nothing to turn that promise into policy --- but now, a new group of menders has stepped into breach, promising to end racial preferences in college admissions while ensuring access to the best-qualified minority students.

The latest is Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who issued his own proposal a few weeks ago. He asked state colleges to quit using race as a factor in deciding whom to admit, but then, urged them to change their policies to admit any Florida student who graduated in the top 20 percent of his high-school class, regardless of test scores. Texas and California universities have adopted similar plans, with the former opting to admit the top 10 percent of graduating seniors, and the latter, the top 4 percent.

Have these reformers figured a successful way out of the affirmative-action morass? Or are they creating new problems and masking old ones? It's too early to know for sure how these experiments will turn out, but a few words of caution are in order.

Racial preferences strike most people as wrong on their face. Giving extra points in the college-admission process to a black or Hispanic student because of his race or ethnicity seems no more fair than taking away points on those bases. But what about devising new rules that appear to treat everyone the same but really are intended to maintain a certain racial or ethnic balance?

If, for example, the University of Mississippi, which admitted its first black student in 1962, adopted a policy to admit only students whose great-grandparents had attended Ole Miss, we would know that the purpose of the new rule was to keep blacks out -- even though race was never mentioned.

When it comes to race, intent counts. No matter how neutral -- or clever -- a policy appears, if its intent is to give some people an advantage and others a disadvantage because of their skin color, then, the policy is discriminatory, plain and simple. But what about Florida's proposed 20 percent rule, or Texas' less generous 10 percent, or California's 4 percent solution? If the intent is to ensure racial balance -- to put caps on the numbers of some groups in order to ensure a floor on the number of others -- these plans aren't much different than the racial preferences that preceded them.

And there are other problems as well. Everyone knows that not all high schools deliver the same education. What's more, the worst schools tend to be concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods, and black and Hispanic students are far more likely to attend such schools.
Graduating in the top 20 percent of the class -- or even the top 4 percent -- from a terrible school won't prepare the student to compete at a first-rate university, especially if the student hasn't taken the courses necessary to tackle college work, such as algebra. Texas has already discovered that many of its 10 percenters need remedial classes, and some lack even the requisite academic credit hours to be admitted to college.

And what about poor black and Hispanic students who have found their way out of failing public schools and manage to attend, say, a local parochial school? Chances are, they'll be measured by tougher standards, and take a more challenging curriculum, but this could actually hurt their chances of getting into college in Florida, Texas or California under the new rules.

Let's say a low-income, Hispanic, public-school student graduates in the top 10 percent of his class with a 'B+' average, having tackled nothing more difficult than one year of algebra. His twin brother, on the other hand, graduates from the Catholic school across the street, having taken not only algebra, but trigonometry and calculus, plus four years of science and English literature, but manages only to rank in the top quarter of his class with a solid 'B' average. Which student would likely fare better at the University of Texas? Unfortunately, not the one guaranteed admission.

What needs mending isn't affirmative action, but education. It's time to end all public policies that treat citizens differently depending on their race and get about the difficult business of reforming our elementary and secondary education system.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate