If you were hoping for change from the hope and change President, you will be disappointed by his reaction on Affirmative Action in higher ed. Richard Kahlenberg has a piece on an affirmative action case and it is one of the most damning exposes on that subject that I have seen. You can find it at the Chronicles of Higher Education.
On Monday, the Obama administration, along with most of the higher-education and business establishment, weighed in with amicus briefs in support of racial preferences at the University of Texas at Austin. Given Barack Obama's mixed messages on affirmative action in the past—he has said his own daughters do not deserve a leg up in admissions and that he understands the resentment toward preferences by whites who do not feel particularly privileged—there was a modest hope that he would break with longstanding Democratic Party orthodoxy to promote a better kind of affirmative action that looks at gaping economic inequalities in our country rather than just counting skin color. He blinked, however, and filed a brief that is unlikely to do anything to change the minds of Supreme Court justices and may do real damage to the president's own re-election chances.
The administration's brief with the Supreme Court argues that even though the University of Texas at Austin was able to achieve substantial racial and ethnic diversity without using race—by giving a preference to low-income students and automatically admitting students in the top 10 percent of their high school—Texas was right to restore racial preferences in the freshman class beginning in 2005 so that the university would better reflect the state's demographic breakdown. This argument is plausible in the policy world but has never been accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
How does a university decide which students to admit? Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are the best indicators of which students will graduate, let alone excel. Unfortunately, relying on such a standard alone would produce a student body that is overwhelmingly White and Asian. African Americans and Hispanics would be very scarce.
The easiest way to correct the racial/ethnic imbalance would be to set aside a number of places for applicants of certain identities. That is called a quota. The Supreme Court ruled quotas unconstitutional in the 1977 Bakke case on the grounds that this amounted to blatant discrimination against non-minority applicants, which it did.
There are alternatives to using race as an admissions criterion that might nonetheless help address the racial imbalance. Here is Kahlenberg from an earlier piece in The New Republic:
The Texas case provides a perfect opportunity for [Obama] to move the Democratic Party beyond the political morass of racial preferences. Indeed, Texas has had success with non-race based affirmative action. After a lower court banned the use of race in admissions decisions in 1996, legislators created two alternatives: one to give a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races and a second to automatically admit students in the top 10 percent of their high school. Under these race-neutral plans, UT Austin produced even greater racial and ethnic diversity (21.4 percent black and Latino representation) than it had when using race (18.6 percent black and Latino).
Kahlenberg thinks that "non-race based affirmative action" is both more politically viable and better policy. Americans tend to oppose racial preferences by about two to one but do not oppose preferences for low income or otherwise disadvantaged persons. Race-neutral admissions schemes that target the top 10 percent of high school students will inevitably help minority students in high schools where they are the majority. Shouldn't we target the most disadvantaged? Do Obama's daughters really need preferences?
Why not support affirmative action based on both race and class? Universities have been saying for years that they consider both factors, and yet on the selective campuses, 86 percent of African Americans are middle or upper-middle class (and overall, rich kids outnumber poor kids by 25:1.) At most universities, it is only after the use of race was banned (in places like Texas, California, and Florida) that they stepped up efforts to admit low-income students as an indirect way of promoting racial and ethnic diversity.
Kahlenberg was hoping for change when he wrote his New Republic piece. His Chronicle piece is an expression of disappointment. Instead of promoting policies that force institutions to do the hard work that is necessary to actually give the disadvantaged a leg up, Obama has chosen to support race-based policies that benefit people like himself and institutions that only want the cheapest way to a racially correct bottom line. If he was hoping for change from this President, he didn't get it.