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The Washington Post

Affirming Exploitation

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

April 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

DALLAS -- In deciding whether race and ethnicity may be considered in college and university admissions -- the question at the heart of two cases involving the University of Michigan -- the Supreme Court should do a cost-benefit analysis.

Supporters of affirmative action love to talk about the benefit of colleges and universities having diverse student bodies. They insist that diversity offers a real-world experience to students who step onto the campus having had limited exposure to other races, ethnicities and cultures. And they may be right.

Yet they never acknowledge the costs. While boasting about how racial preferences enhance the education of white students, they never stop to consider that this enhancement comes at the expense of the education of blacks and Latinos. How could they? That would mean accepting the possibility that a program created nearly 40 years ago to help minorities may now be harming them. It would also mean that by keeping it going, these supporters are accomplices in a brand of exploitation not altogether different from what was going on in our society before programs like affirmative action were created. Not long ago, exclusionary admissions policies that kept blacks and Latinos out of college put minority students at a disadvantage for the benefit of whites.

Now racial preferences that intend to let more blacks and Latinos into college -- even if it means lowering standards -- do much the same thing. And yet, where's the outrage? For all their talk about compassion, liberals -- affirmative action's most vocal defenders -- aren't bothered that students admitted under these lower standards often struggle and drop out. For all their lip service about helping people become self-sufficient, liberals don't seem worried that the message sent by those who protest to preserve affirmative action is that they don't believe Latinos and African Americans can succeed without it.

Liberals don't even seem concerned about what's behind their own warning that, without racial preferences, the number of minority students on the nation's elite college campuses would plummet. Frankly, I don't believe that, but even if I did, I would want to know why that is. The thinking goes that without the additional boost provided by racial preferences, there would not be enough qualified blacks and Latinos in the applicant pipeline who could get into the top-tier schools on the natural.

Yet whose fault is that? A prime suspect is the public school system. That would be the same public school system in which only about half of black and Latino ninth-graders ever graduate from high school. And the same system that liberals support and defend by fighting against merit pay for teachers, vouchers for students and just about any other attempt to impose accountability.

Starting to get the picture?

Those most intent on preserving the educational status quo have a personal interest in also preserving racial preferences. To the degree that there are failures and shortcomings in K-12 public education, racial preferences at the college level help to conceal them.

Were minority students suddenly to vanish from college and university campuses, and the campuses return to being all white -- as liberals warn would happen without preferences -- Americans might start asking tough questions about the quality of elementary and secondary schooling in this country, especially for minorities. They might even ask whether teachers and administrators -- the vast majority of whom are white -- have the same level of expectations for black and Latino students as they do for white students, or whether guidance counselors are "tracking" minority students away from college-prep and Advanced Placement courses and toward vocational studies and other less-challenging curriculums.

Take it from someone who spent four years in the classrooms of central California trying to inspire Latino students in a climate of abysmally low expectations -- those are mighty good questions. So good that blacks and Latinos who are genuinely concerned with educational achievement, as opposed to political gains and the symbolism of holding on to a concession from the civil rights movement, should be asking them now.

The answers just may prompt those black and Latino activists to switch sides and oppose what they now support and to question whether their allies are really their adversaries. The answers may also teach them the most important lesson in all of this -- that whatever happens at the Supreme Court, it will be of far less consequence than what happens every day in the nation's kindergarten classrooms.

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