Champions of racially preferential affirmative action in university admissions have swung from denying (unconvincingly) that double standards exist to asserting (more plausibly) that colorblind admissions would produce dramatic and destructive drops in the numbers of black and Hispanic students at top campuses. The specter of such de facto resegregation of the most elite institutions has led many people (including me) who dislike or even detest racial preferences to shrink from calling for their abolition. But maybe it's possible to dispense with the poison of racial preference, and expand opportunities for disadvantaged students of all races, without sacrificing diversity. That's the promise of an intriguing plan unveiled by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Nov. 9. His "One Florida" initiative would abolish racial preferences in admissions but at the same time, the Governor predicts, increase black and Hispanic admissions to the 10 state university campuses. Bush would seek to do this by guaranteeing admission to the top 20 percent of students graduating from each Florida high school, provided that they have completed the required courses. The high schools would include the mostly black and Hispanic schools that rank lowest in the state in average SAT scores and other measures of academic skills. The state would also continue to give special consideration on an individualized, race-neutral basis to applicants who have shown promise in overcoming adversity. Bush's "Talented 20" plan appears inspired, in part, by efforts in Texas and California to maintain diversity after racial preferences were abolished by court order (in Texas) and by ballot initiative (in California). A 1997 Texas law requires the flagship campus at the University of Texas to admit the top 10 percent of each high school class. Like the Texas and California efforts, the Florida initiative would reward the hard work of the best students of all races at even the weakest schools. It would not reward the skin color of middle-class black and Hispanic students, who have often been the beneficiaries of racial preferences. The Florida plan would come close to substituting class-based for race-based affirmative action. The plan also calls for a $20 million, 43 percent increase in need-based financial aid; extra courses for those who have not been adequately prepared for college; and an enrollment increase to make room for all qualified students. It seeks to upgrade the weaker high schools by spending more for SAT practice tests, providing more teacher training, and offering financial rewards for teachers whose students do well on advanced-placement tests. The Jeb Bush initiative, which would also limit the use of racial preferences in state contracting, has been widely portrayed as a political gambit. The purpose, it is said, is to help brother George W. Bush's presidential campaign and to defuse the bitter political battle now brewing in Florida over a proposed ballot initiative that would ban the use of racial preferences by the state and local governments in education, hiring, and contracting. While the ballot initiative is far ahead in public opinion polls, Bush--who fears alienating minority voters--opposes it as "divisive." But whatever his motives, Bush's proposal seems well-designed to pursue the same benefits that are associated with racial preferences--and to do more for disadvantaged students--without the heavy social costs. The Bush plan's apparent potential for success helps explain why it has has been well-received in Florida's universities, and why some black and Hispanic leaders have voiced guarded support, despite the ritual denunciations by die-hard advocates of racial preferences. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the plan will look as good in practice as on paper. Even assuming that Bush can win the support of the university system's Board of Regents and the state Legislature, it's unclear whether his goals are attainable without more state spending than he has proposed. And at best, the Bush plan carries a big risk: Students at the weakest schools have been so poorly educated at both home and school for the first 18 years of their lives that even those in the top 20 percent may struggle with academic work at the university level.
Indeed, they may struggle more than do many current beneficiaries of racial preferences, who come from more prosperous backgrounds and have higher SAT scores. But this seems a risk worth taking, especially in Florida, where even the most prestigious campuses are less selective, are less competitive, and have been less dependent on racial preferences than those in Texas, California, and some other states. The hope is that the hard work, grit, and raw talent that got these kids to the top of the class at the weakest high schools, combined with remedial programs and other state assistance, will enable many of them to catch up with college classmates from more prosperous backgrounds. This focus on helping students who have worked hard and done well in weak schools, which tend to be in low-income communities, seems truer to the original vision of affirmative action than does the regime of racial preferences that prevails at most selective universities. That regime, while draped in the rhetoric of civil rights and fairness, sometimes admits children of black and Hispanic lawyers and doctors ahead of otherwise better-qualified children of white and Asian laborers and secretaries. The Florida plan also takes aim at the heart of the problem with the education of black and Hispanic children, which is not racial discrimination but rather the appalling quality of the schools that many have to attend, and the culture of poverty into which many are born. In addition, the Florida plan runs no risk of being held unconstitutional.
Racial preferences in admissions, on the other hand, have been struck down by some courts and face an uncertain fate in the U.S. Supreme Court. Racial preferences have undeniably helped produce one major benefit: More-rapid integration of our top campuses, which are gateways to opportunity in a nation still plagued by racial stratification. But class-based, achievement-based affirmative action, such as the Florida plan, could produce much the same benefit without the same costs. And the costs of preferences have been very high. Most obviously, racial preferences are a form of discrimination that unfairly denies opportunities to some whites and Asians based solely on the color of their skin. Preferences therefore sow bitterness among whites and Asians. They also inspire an unhealthy sense of entitlement among some black and Hispanic people, who have come to see racial double standards as a birthright. They subject all black and Hispanic students to the often-inaccurate perception that they owe their admission to preferences.
And those who do owe their admission to preferences have far lower grades and higher dropout rates (on average) than their classmates. Meanwhile, some defenders of preferences have diverted attention from such awkward facts by resorting to deception about how preferences operate and demagogic attacks on the motives of critics. Worse, in Jeb Bush's words, "Preferences in higher education are being used to mask the failure of low-performing schools in our K-12 system." The large gaps between average white and Asian SAT scores, on the one hand, and average black and Hispanic scores, on the other, have grown even wider over the past decade. But such evidence of continuing inequalities in the average academic skills of the students applying to college has been swept under the rug by the false solution of racial preferences. There is no perfect solution. But a program of admitting to universities the top graduates of the weakest schools will give both the universities and the state powerful new incentives to make those schools better.
Indeed, the Bush initiative challenges each state university to "adopt" at least two low-performing schools and to provide mentoring, tutoring, advanced courses, and outreach to promising students. In this regard, the experience at the University of California is instructive. "Ending affirmative action has had one unpublicized and profoundly desirable consequence: It has forced the university to try to expand the pool of eligible minority students," wrote James Traub, in an insightful and bracingly optimistic account of the post-preference California experience, in The New York Times Magazine of May 2. "U.C.
campuses are now reaching down into the high schools, the junior highs, and even the elementary schools to help minority students achieve the kind of academic record that will make them eligible for admission." In 1978 the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote, "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." As we enter the new millennium, it's time to get beyond racial double standards, and find better ways of pursuing diversity. Stuart Taylor Jr.