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Which Ones

Fascinating article in the New York Times today about race in college admissions. Amherst, but not Williams, gets a mention.

At the most recent reunion of Harvard University’s black alumni, there was lots of pleased talk about the increase in the number of black students at Harvard.

But the celebratory mood was broken in one forum, when some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students were.

While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard’s undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them — perhaps as many as two-thirds — were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves. Many argue that it was students like these, disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions.

I would imagine that things are unlikely to be different at Williams, but that they are different from the 80’s; there was no SoCa 20 years ago, I think. Finding out the exact facts about Williams — and how/why they have changed over time — would make for a great senior thesis. Indeed, Williams, relative to other elite schools, has a pretty proud heritage in this regard.

The president of Amherst College, Anthony W. Marx, says that colleges should care about the ethnicity of black students because in overlooking those with predominantly American roots, colleges are missing an “opportunity to correct a past injustice” and depriving their campuses “of voices that are particular to being African-American, with all the historical disadvantages that that entails.”

“Overlooking”? Isn’t that a tad misleading? Is Marx really claiming that there are hundreds of high achieving (meaning high SAT scores and high school GPAs with difficult courses) black 18 year olds in America who aren’t actively courted by Amherst (and Harvard and Williams)? That certainly isn’t true.

I suspect that his desire to “correct a past injustice” is probably illegal in the context of Amherst’s admissions policies. It is OK for Amherst to discriminate against, say, Greek-American students as long as the purpose of doing so is to increase diversity in the student body and, therefore, improve the education for all. It is not OK to discriminate in order to make historical redress to 18 year olds that Amherst has not wronged in the past.

But I am not a lawyer.

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#1 Comment By Loweeel On June 25, 2004 @ 12:09 am

David Bernstein, with whom I’ll hopefully get the chance to take some classes over the next 3 years, isn’t just a lawyer, but he’s a law professor.

And he agrees (btw, his book is phenomenal… and scary).

One major problem with this argument, not addressed in the article, is that while racial preferences for “diversity” purposes are legal under Grutter v. Bollinger, racial preferences for remedial purposes are not. And it would be hard to argue that, say, the fifth African American student from Harlem adds more “diversity” to a class than the first recent Gambian immigrant. Any college (are you listening, president of Amherst?)that preferred “American” black students over black immigrants would likely be violating the law.

This is just one more example of the perverse consequences of the “diversity” argument for racial preferences. (Another perversity is that a white immigrant from a wealthy family in Peru gets a “Latino” preference, while a poor kid from Appalachia or from a poor Irish immigrant family does not.) While not everyone, to say the least, agrees with the remdial rationale for affirmative action/racial preferences, it is at least coherent, and, as any reasonable preference policy should, suggests targeting preferences as those whose ancestors suffered most, and whose communities currently need the most help. The Supreme Court, if it’s going to uphold the legality of racial preferences (and I’ve argued in You Can’t Say That! that it’s obligated to do so, at least for certain ideologically driven private schools), should abandon the diversity rationale in favor of the remedial rationale.