Supreme Court’s Affirmative-Action Debate Puts Focus on UC’s Shabby History

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in Fisher v. the University of Texas, the latest big affirmative-action case to reach SCOTUS. Conservative justices used their questions to establish how intentionally slippery and vague UT officials are in explaining how race is included as a factor in deciding admissions to their first-rate public university. Here’s amainstream media account that doesn’t capture the verve with which John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy went after the University of Texas’ lawyer.

To students of California politics and academia, what should be especially interesting is how the justices deal with the claim that fuzzy, “holistic” judgments that lead to less-qualified minority students being admitted over much more-qualified white or Asian students are somehow less objectionable than hard quotas. In California, this “holistic” approach to college admissions was long ago revealed as an explicit attempt to game Proposition 209, the 1996 state law which bans racial quotas in state government.

The N.Y. Times figures out the UC ploy

And which journalistic outlet made this point best? The New York Times! Economics columnist David Leonhardt wrote a long piece in the Sunday magazine on Sept. 30, 2007, explaining how the UC system, especially UCLA, used fuzzy talk to advance a clearly racial agenda — one with far more benefits for the kids of affluent blacks and Hispanics than poor Asians (or poor whites).

Here was my take then:

“One of the aspects of the University of California system/affirmative action debate that consistently gets short shrift in media coverage is that in the old quota system, African-American and Latino students with less impressive scholastic records weren’t bumping white students, they were bumping Asian-American students. So Asian-Americans paid the biggest price for a policy that has as its central rationale the need to remedy the dominant white culture’s historic discrimination against minorities. Huh?

“So when I saw the long New York Times magazine article … I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here’s what I got: a 4,800-word article explaining and implicitly praising the possibly illegal ways that UC officials got around Proposition 209 and its ban on racial considerations in admission.

“I understand why some people might think this is a good thing. But I cannot understand why Leonhardt would mention the following pretty much in passing:

“Even as the number of low-income black freshmen [at UCLA] soared this year, the overall number of low-income freshmen fell somewhat. The rise in low-income black students was accompanied by a fall in low-income Asian students — not a decline in well-off students. So under the old quota system, Asian-American students in general paid the price for society’s attempts to atone for white racism. Now under the new surreptitious affirmative-action program, poor Asian-American students are paying the highest price. If this is social justice, count me out.”

The Connerly perspective

Here is part of Ward Connerly’s take on Leonhardt’s telling essay on race and UC:

“‘The most useful lesson to be learned from Leonhardt’s article is that it would be prudent for those on both sides of the race preferences in college admissions debate to work toward some acceptable compromise for the good of our nation. …  We must also understand the national imperative of providing access to low income students and to those who are confronted with disadvantages that impede their ability to lead productive lives and to demonstrate their potential value to American society. It is not in our national interest to have hordes of people standing on the sidelines seething with anger because they cannot obtain a ticket to gain access to a better life in America. That ticket for most of us is higher education. Thus, those of us who believe in academic meritocracy must broaden how we view ‘merit.’ That largely means empowering admissions officers to search for talent from among all students and not just the “A” average, high SAT students. In short, socioeconomic ‘affirmative action,’ in a colorblind admissions process, can be that compromise.”

One factor or the factor?

This crucial detail in how affirmative action, disguised or otherwise, works was a focus of Justice Alito in Wednesday’s questioning:

“JUSTICE ALITO: Well, I thought that the whole purpose of affirmative action was to help students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, but you make a very different argument that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  The top 10 percent plan admits lots of  African Americans — lots of Hispanics and a fair number of African Americans. But you say, well, it’s — it’s faulty, because it doesn’t admit enough African Americans and Hispanics who come from privileged backgrounds. And you specifically have the example of  the child of successful professionals in Dallas.  Now, that’s your argument? If you have -­you have an applicant whose parents are — let’s say they’re — one of them is a partner in your law firm in Texas, another one is a part — is another corporate lawyer. They have income that puts them in the top 1 percent of earners in the country, and they have -­parents both have graduate degrees. They deserve a leg-up against, let’s say, an Asian or a white applicant whose parents are absolutely average in terms of education and income?”

Like Jews and the Ivy League in the 1930s

Alito tied the University of Texas’ attorney in knots. I suspect the U.S. Supreme Court will end up limiting or killing affirmative action on a 5-3 vote next June (Elena Kagan recused herself). If that is what happens, California’s long, miserable record on affirmative action will have helped drive its demise.

This record goes back well before Prop. 209. By a quarter-century ago, it was apparent that innocent Asian-Americans were the victims of affirmative action in UC admissions, not historically oppressive whites. This is from a September 1987 Los Angeles Times story:

“There may be a parallel between what is happening to Asian-Americans now and what happened to Jews in the 1920s and 1930s at some Ivy League schools. … And, like Jews before them, the members of the new model minority contend that they have begun to bump up against artificial barriers to their advancement.

“Casual inspection of the Berkeley campus … makes any suggestion of anti-Asian bias seem implausible. Asians represent 6.7% of California’s population, but they account for 25.5% of the Berkeley student body. …

“But … the percentage of Asians in the student body might be even higher, the critics contend, if admissions were still based strictly on merit. Since the mid-1970s, both Americans of Asian descent and immigrants from Asia have so outperformed Caucasian, black and Latino students in high schools that universities have manipulated admissions criteria to hold back the Asian influx, say the critics.

“‘As soon as the percentages of Asian students began reaching double digits at some universities, suddenly a red light went on,’ said Ling-Chi Wang, a peppery Chinese-born professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley and one of the university’s severest critics. ‘Since then, Asian-American admissions rates have either stabilized or declined … university officials see the prevalence of Asians as a problem.’”

Affirmative action is a much easier sell when it is built on abstract talk about the historical effects of white racism. But when its reality is punishing another ethnic group in the name of atoning for white racism, it looks shabby — or, to use Chief Justice Roberts’ term, “sordid.”

This ugliness first became clear in California a generation ago.

(Chris Reed is a San Diego Union Tribune editorial writer and former host of KOGO Radio’s “Top Story” weeknight news talk show. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)