Phi Beta Cons

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The Illusion of “The Illusion of Race-Blind Admissions”


There’s an op-ed today at Inside Higher Ed that argues (a) we can’t remove all evidence of a student’s race from his or her application, so (b) we should just allow admission committees to engage in racial discrimination. (I oversimplify a bit, but not much.)

After the jump is my posted response.

Dubious Benefits, Indisputable Costs

I agree with Ms. Vultaggio that it may well be impossible to remove all evidence of a student’s race from his or her application, but nothing else that she says is persuasive.

For starters, the fact that the application may contain information about the student’s race does not mean that we have to shrug and accept it when that information is used to give the student a preference. It’s always useful to put the shoe on the other foot: Suppose that an admissions committee was seizing upon indicia of a black or Hispanic student’s ethnicity and discriminating *against* the student on that account — would that be accepted as somehow inevitable so long as the information is available to the admissions committee?

Furthermore, in light of Proposition 209, the law in California is clear: Giving a preference on account of race is illegal. At UCLA, then, we do not have a situation “when the law is ambiguous”; having followed this dispute for years, I strongly suspect we have, instead, a “university [that] aspires to break the law.”

Next, Ms. Vultaggio says that college admissions is often unfair, for all kinds of reasons. But it does not follow from this that we should cheerfully allow the particular unfairness of racial discrimination. The argument proves too much: Again, would Ms. Vultaggio accept it if African-Americans and Latinos were being discriminated *against*?

Finally, at the end, Ms. Vultaggio seems to suggest that racial preferences ought to be allowed as a means of addressing “persistent societal racism.” We’ll put aside the question of how “persistent” and widespread such racism is in 2008 (two words: Barack Obama) for individuals born not in 1864, or 1964, but in 1990. This particular justification is a legal nonstarter, having been explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court. And, again, even if the Supreme Court had not rejected it, Proposition 209 has.

So we have the dubious justifications of (a) fighting societal racism and (b) enjoying the “academic and social benefits of attending a racially diverse institution” (the “ample research” for which is disputed). On the other hand, here are the costs of using racial preferences: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.


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