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Jewish World Review June 19, 2000 / 16 Sivan, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Affirmative action beyond race -- WHEN PROPOSITION 209 was passed in California -- ending racial preference in state college admissions -- the media, very much including The New York Times, declared that the entire higher education system in that state would become practically all-white. The same prediction of doom was sent around the country when the Hopwood federal court decision eliminated racial preference in Texas public colleges.

Now, in a May 20 editorial, The New York Times concedes that in California, "minority enrollment has rebounded at the second-tier colleges." But not yet at the elite Berkeley and UCLA campuses. However, those second-tier colleges have high academic standards.

The New York Times ignores the fact that, because of Proposition 209, all the colleges and universities in that state have finally begun to look closely at the life history of each applicant, including poor white applicants. Moreover, for the first time there is aggressive recruitment by college admissions directors at high schools in low-income areas, help from college personnel to set up teacher training and programs to enable students in the lower grades to prepare for college.

As James Traub of The New York Times reported when this form of across-the-board affirmative action was underway in California, "Academics and administrators throughout the system admit that the universities would never have shouldered this burden if it had not been for the elimination of affirmative action" in its racial-preference form (emphasis added).

In its May 20 editorial this year, The New York Times points out that in Texas, after the Hopwood court decision forced the end of racial preference in college admissions there, "black and Latino enrollment dipped precipitously in the first year, but rose again after the legislature passed a law guaranteeing college admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of any public high school class." This includes predominantly white high schools with inferior resources and a high percentage of students whose families have low incomes. Texas colleges previously paid hardly any attention to those schools.

As in California, Texan colleges are now engaged in remedial work on campuses as well as creating programs to raise achievement in the lower schools. Furthermore, instead of focusing on getting more black and Latino applicants into college, there is now an emphasis on the life experiences of all applicants -- including those who have had to overcome such obstacles as poverty.

This opening of affirmative action beyond race is not only much fairer, it's also constitutional because it provides "equal protection of the laws" -- as mandated by the 14th Amendment -- to all students.

And as the courts continue to strike down race-preference affirmative action on constitutional grounds, more states are beginning to realize the crucial need to focus on all failing elementary, middle and high schools, where so many youngsters don't even begin to think of the possibility of applying to a college.

In its recent editorial, The New York Times says: "What all these states have learned is that the only real way to make race-sensitive policies unnecessary is to guarantee black and Latino children from poor communities a realistic chance at a decent education that prepares them for college."

But The New York Times is still ignoring the many white children and children of other races who need "a realistic chance at a decent education." I have seen predominantly white lower schools in rural Maine, Pennsylvania and other states to which no editorial writer at The New York Times would ever send his children. And there are Asian-American children in failing schools.

Yet even now, that editorial shows concern only for the future of black and Latino youngsters. The New York Times ends its editorial with an urgent call for continuing race-based affirmative action until guarantees of a decent education are in place for minority students. To do otherwise, according to the Times, "is to court civic disaster."

There has been "civic disaster" in many of the nation's lower public schools for generations. But only after the courts began to declare racial preference in college admissions unconstitutional did some college admissions directors and state legislatures start to do something to change the odds against poor and working-class children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Ward Connerly -- who is still being shouted down by black, Latino and liberal white students when he tries to speak at colleges -- has been a major force, though criticized by The New York Times, in bringing about true equality of opportunity for all of those kids left behind by selective affirmative action.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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03/27/00: The censoring of feminist history
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03/03/00: The ACLU violates its principles --- yet again!
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10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
10/18/99: The blue wall of silence
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09/27/99: Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation
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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA