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Jul. 12 2010 - 8:24 pm | 348 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Minority Merits: The U.C. System Proves Minorities Can Compete Without Aid

The best thing that can or should be said about Affirmative Action is what the Democratic civil rights champion Sammy Davis Jr. purportedly said when asked why he hugged Richard Nixon at a 1970 Republican fundraiser: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Why not fight racism with reverse racism? If a racist and corrupt system discriminates against minorities then one means of righting this wrong is to reverse the racism by discriminating for instead of against said minorities. This is precisely what the University of California system did in its admissions policy until Proposition 209 passed 54% to 45% in 1996, prohibiting the state from discriminating against or giving preferences to anyone on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

Here we have the basis for a social experiment in which one set of variables is altered: before 1996 the University of California system discriminated against whites and in favor of minorities in their admissions policy; after 1996 students were admitted based on their merits alone. Opponents of Prop 209—believing that minorities lack the merits to make it on their own—predicted that minority admissions would decrease after 1996. Proponents of 209—believing that minorities are just as smart, creative, and hard working as any other group—predicted the opposite. What happened?

Admissions for the Fall of 2010 for the University of California reveals that the number of minorities in both absolute numbers and percentages exceeds that of 1996:

African American            1996: 4% (1,628)                  2010: 4.2% (2,624)

Latino                         1996: 15.4% (5,744)             2010: 23% (14,081)

Asians                         1996: 29.8% (11,085)                       2010: 37.5% (22,877)

Native Americans            1996: 0.9% (360)                  2010: 0.8% (531)

Whites                         1996: 44% (16,465)              2010: 34% (20,807)

So it would appear that a meritocracy in educational admissions works, and in this (the University of California), one of the largest educational laboratories in the world. Blacks and Latinos in particular do not need affirmative action, special favors, handouts, proportional set asides, or any other discriminatory practice in order to succeed. And how insulting to ever to have implied that they do! Did anyone believe that the only way minorities could succeed in American education would be for the government to step in and order educational institutions to discriminate on their behalf? Yes, they did, and they still are: the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action filed a lawsuit this year to overturn Prop 209. Why? According to the suit: “The percentage of Latina/o, black and Native American students in the UC as a whole has not kept pace with the rising percentage of those groups among high school graduates of the state.”

So the purpose of higher education is to be an extension of K-12 education, matching percentages precisely or else? And that “or else” should include a top-down, government enforced racist policy of discrimination based on high school racial demographics? Is this what American higher education has come down to? If the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action has its way it will, because, in fact, the full name and mission of this organization, according to it’s web page, is: “The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) is building the new civil rights movement. We are a primarily student- and youth-based organization of leaders in our schools and communities, committed to making real the promises of American democracy and equality.” Read that ominous acronym again: By Any Means Necessary. If the law is not overturned, what other means do these folks have in mind? Violence? The threat of violence?

I am white. My “race” lost a full 10 percentage points in U.C. admissions after the passage of Prop 209. Will BAMN step up and demand that the U.C. admissions office set aside a fixed number of admits for whites regardless of SAT scores, GPAs, student essays, and the like? Somehow I doubt it, but if they did, and I were applying to college, I would give the same response that any self-respecting individual should today to such racist policies:

“No thanks. I don’t need your racist discriminatory policies to succeed in life. And how insulting that you would think otherwise—I can make it on my own without your snobby elitist attitude that without your help I will fail. I don’t need you or any other patronizing thugs to threaten a university to let me in or else they will be in violation of a law that could land them in jail for choosing to not admit me. And if that were the reason they did let me in, I wouldn’t go. I am smart. I am creative. I am hard working. I am responsible for my actions. I will make my own way in life, and if I succeed then I succeed on my own merits, and if I fail then I fail on my own lack of merits. Period. If you don’t understand that, then get lost.”


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  1. collapse expand

    It seems to me that the only consideration that should be given to a prospective university student is socioeconomic and perhaps geographic. Race or sex should never come into it. I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that students will rise to both internal and external expectations and will achieve according to ability and perseverance. Insulting students with any kind of discrimination doesn’t help.

    • collapse expand

      Going further, for those families who get out of a discriminatory environment early, you don’t want to taint their achievements with a patronizing “adjustment” according to some ethnic or racial group.

      In other words, someone from an upper middle class black family ought to go through the same standards as everyone else.

      I have always thought that we ought to make adjustments for lower income households to encourage those with poor economic means and a drive to better themselves to move up in the world. This would be a blind process, so a Latino in an urban ghetto has the same chance as an Appalachian kid living in a trailer park.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Race not included, how have the admission criteria changed in the last decade for the UCal system? If race is no longer a factor, have standardized test scores been given a greater weight? According to NCES, the student demographics of California are as follows:

    31% White
    49% are Hispanic or Latino (of any race)
    12% Asian
    8% Black or African American
    1% American Indian

    Should we care that Hispanics are still significantly underrepresented in the UCal system (23% UCal v. 49% state )? Should we care that Asians are overrepresented (38% UCal v. 12% state)? Is it possible that the revised UCal admission standards are unintentionally favoring Asian students possibly by an over reliance on standardized test scores? Is it possible that the UCal percentages correlate with per pupil spending for each demographic. Given that local property taxes make up nearly 25% of educational funding in CA, is it possible that whites and asians go to schools with higher per pupil spending?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they seem terribly relevant to the discussion. I can appreciate Shermer’s libertarian bent to this conversation, but we need more data.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Shermer,

    You wrote:”Blacks and Latinos in particular do not need affirmative action, special favors, handouts, proportional set asides, or any other discriminatory practice in order to succeed. And how insulting to ever to have implied that they do!”

    I have noticed that it usually white people who make this argument. In contrast, Martin Luther King had a different perspective.

    “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”

    “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro”

  4. collapse expand

    As a general rule, any time you use the phrase “reverse racism” you’ve presented your conclusion before making the argument. You’ve also assumed, perhaps fraudulently, that having access to enter an institution of higher education means that you have access to exit it on your terms.

    I’m under the impression that controlling access to higher education was always at issue with regards to affirmative action. Minorities could enter college, and find themselves in a mostly whitewashed or Asian-washed environment, lacking any of the social support structures that would actually help them complete college and pursue the upward mobility college is supposed to make possible.

    While I never believed in BAMN’s tactics at my alma mater, based on graduation statistics (and anecdotal evidence about the reasons minority students of all stripes left the university), it seems like their focus is still at least relevant.

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Shermer,

    Let me add, that until not that long ago, white people enjoyed affirmative action (it was called “White Supremacy” but that is just a matter of terminology) in a variety of field, including higher education. In many places, only white people could be matriculated to state and private universities. At the time no one thought that this was insulting or demeaning to white people, that it lessened anyone’s regard for white people’s intellectual capabilities. I certainly don’t recall anyone saying “Whites in particular do not need affirmative action, special favors, handouts, proportional set asides, or any other discriminatory practice in order to succeed. And how insulting to everyone to have implied that they do!”

  6. collapse expand

    I didn’t want to comment on this because I’m a fan but you’ve completely missed the point.

    The admissions scores universities use to determine admissions are a proxy, they are not an actual measure of the ability of a student in any particular field. We have yet to invent a machine that can tell us say whether any given student will make a good lawyer or engineer we have to make do with their ability to pass tests or their academic performance in school.

    The problem is that there can be a bias built into those scores, in this case a bias against students from lower socio-economic groups. A good point to make would be that it is better to adjust your proxy according to the factors that actually influence it rather than race (though as more black and latino families are poor it is probably still better than nothing).

    Instead you chose to charge people who support help for races which are in general disadvantaged with racism. While some no doubt do think that black people cannot compete without assistance most simply acknowledge that more black people start at a disadvantage and perhaps mistakenly advantage black people rather than target all those who suffer those disadvantages. One could equally argue (equally unfairly) that anyone who uses the term reverse racism when discussing advantaging non-whites has already assumed white superiority, unfair discrimination on the basis of race is regular racism regardless of the race of people involved.

    In summary: Giving aid to disadvantaged groups doesn’t equal giving them an unfair advantage and suggesting that proponents of this are racists is disgusting.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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