Race-Norming In Michigan

Before America became as enlightened as it is now, Asian-Americans were denied, among much else, the equal protection of the law. In various jurisdictions they were forbidden to testify in courts against whites, practice law, be employed by corporations, attend public schools, marry Caucasians (a California law prohibiting marriage between a white and a "Negro, mulatto, Mongolian or member of the Malay race" was signed in 1945 by Gov. Earl Warren), own land, catch salmon for sale or profit and do many other things. That was then.

This is now. Soon--perhaps before this NEWSWEEK reaches most readers; certainly by July--the Supreme Court will decide whether it is constitutional for public universities to adopt admissions policies that discriminate against, among others, Asian-Americans. That is one dimension of the University of Michigan's admissions policy of racial preferences for certain minorities, in the name of "diversity."

Undergraduate applicants who are African-American, Hispanic or Native American get 20 points automatically added to their scores (150 is the maximum possible; a perfect SAT score of 1600 earns only 12 points). Stuart Taylor of National Journal rightly argues that this is, in effect, "race-norming"--indistinguishable from, say, treating a B grade on a standardized test or high-school transcript, when achieved by certain minorities, as equivalent to an A by anyone else. So, what would be the difference between Michigan's policy and a policy of reducing an Asian-American applicant's A to a B?

Michigan's supposed solicitude for minorities is an aspect of a national scandal. Nationwide, 45 percent of African-American young people have their life chances irrevocably blighted by never receiving high-school diplomas. In 2000 only 2 percent of Michigan's African-American eighth graders registered as "proficient" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test. Five percent is the national average for African-American eighth graders. For whites, the average is 34 percent proficient.

Yet what are the nation's educational and opinion-forming elites obsessing about? The defense of Michigan's racial preferences.

Racial preferences for diversity pur-poses matter only at selective colleges, the minority of four-year institutions that do not have, essentially, open admissions--open to any high-school graduate and, in many cases, nongraduates. Such preferences matter greatly only at highly selective institutions--those that receive at least twice as many applications as they accept. There are fewer than 100 such institutions.

What makes the huge investment of ingenuity and resources in the defense of Michigan's racial preferences disgusting is that the investment is grotesquely disproportionate to any good it will do the African-American community. But by the logic of the diversity rationale for preferences, doing good for African-Americans is an afterthought. The real purpose of socially engineered diversity is to somehow--there is scant evidence as to just how this supposedly works--improve the educational experience for all students attending elite institutions. Which means diversity preferences are intended primarily for the benefit of nonminorities.

The preferred minorities--mainly African-Americans but also Hispanics--are being used as seasoning ingredients for elite institutions. These institutions do not dwell on certain amply documented and discomforting facts. As Taylor notes, the preferred minorities have high failure and dropout rates and cluster disproportionately in the bottom quarter of their classes. And of those who try to use their degrees from elite institutions as passports to elite professional schools, most again are admitted on the basis of schools' racial double standards, and "shockingly high percentages" of preferentially admitted students "end up flunking their medical boards and bar exams."

Taylor says, "It's debatable whether those admitted through preferences end up with as great a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence as they might have acquired at less selective institutions, where they could be academic stars." But the elite institutions that are gathering minorities who can be admitted only under diversity preferences are not primarily interested in the welfare of the minority individuals.

Rather, those institutions are violating the cardinal principle that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means to others' ends. Those institutions are so serene in their moral smugness that they are not even conscious that they are using minorities as mere means for flavoring the ambiences of their campuses.

The University of Michigan and likeminded institutions claim a virtually unrestricted right to act on their judgments about how to design a student body with what they consider the optimal racial and ethnic mix. If the Supreme Court finds this constitutionally permissible, the doctrine of group rights will be ratified. Its adherents will become increasingly aggressive in pursuit of their radical goal: the overthrow of a core principle of our open society--the principle that rights inhere in individuals.