In 2003, when the Supreme Court granted the University of Michigan’s admissions officers the right to judge students by the color of their skin, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote of her wish that “25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” The truth is that they aren’t necessary today — and they’re actually hurting the people they’re supposed to help. Next week, on Election Day, voters in Michigan will have an opportunity to eliminate racial preferences before they do their damage for another generation.
The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, listed on the ballot as Proposal 2, would prohibit state and local governments from “discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” This would affect not only how the University of Michigan and other public schools select their students, but also public employment and contracting. The initiative comes in the wake of similar efforts approved by voters in California ten years ago and Washington State eight years ago.
The experience in California is instructive. The adoption of colorblind admissions has reduced the number of black and Hispanic students at UC-Berkeley and UCLA, the two top schools in the University of California system. But instead of denying these students an education they deserve, it has simply reapportioned them throughout the UC’s ten-campus system, which serves more than 200,000 students. UC-Riverside and UC-Santa Cruz, for example, have seen large increases in black enrollment. Diplomas from these schools are nothing to sniff at: The entire UC system is elite, sitting at the apex of a higher-education pyramid that also includes the California State University system (23 campuses, more than 400,000 students) and a large network of community colleges. Simply put, the opportunity for minority students to pursue a college degree has not diminished since Californians banned racial preferences.
In fact, it has improved. The graduation rate for black UC students has doubled over the last decade. That’s because when students are matched to universities without reference to their race, they wind up at schools suited to their educational backgrounds and abilities, and are therefore more likely to succeed. In the UC system today, black-graduation rates are approaching those for whites. At the University of Michigan, however, they lag far behind.
Students who struggle in Ann Arbor through no fault of their own (they may have received substandard K–12 education, for example) may be able to thrive in East Lansing, at Michigan State University. Insisting that they belong at the University of Michigan is like telling a football team in the NCAA’s Mid-American Conference that it can play in the Big Ten and expect to compete with the Wolverines, Buckeyes, and Nittany Lions. The result is disappointment, resentment, and suspicions of inferiority. This is unhealthy for everyone, and produces charges of institutional racism, demands for remedial instruction, and a failure to confront K–12 inadequacies.
If the University of Michigan regarded race as one factor among many — an occasional tie-breaker between two students who are equally qualified — there would probably be little or no controversy. Yet race is a huge factor in the admissions process, as demonstrated in new findings by the Center for Equal Opportunity. It has shown that black and Hispanic students with SAT scores of 1240 and high-school grade-point averages of 3.2 enjoy a roughly 90 percent chance of admission; similarly qualified Asians and whites stand only about a 10 percent chance. This is no gentle tipping of the scales, but a mad pursuit of color-coded proportionality whose primary purpose is to make white liberals feel good about themselves. And the consequences for their supposed beneficiaries are disastrous.
We hope that, on November 7, Michigan voters reveal that their own preference is to end official discrimination in favor of truly equal opportunity.