Skin color bonus

At Michigan, it’s extra credit

By Kenneth Smith

Washington Times, December 28, 2000

“Hail to the victors valiant/Hail to the conquering heroes/Hail, hail to Michigan/The leaders and best/ If you take into account the extra credit some students get for having the right skin color.”

That last line sounds a little jarring in the context of the famed University of Michigan fight song, but this month a U.S. federal district judge effectively rewrote it to add a racial twist. It is constitutional, wrote Judge Patrick Duggan, for Michigan students who are black, Hispanic or American Indian (as opposed to just Indian Indian) to receive a 20-point head start — out of 150 points possible — over everyone else applying to get into the school.

Why? The University of Michigan, backed by corporations like General Motors Inc., had argued that tilting the admissions process to favor minorities was necessary to produce a racially diverse student body. And racial diversity is important, agreed Mr. Duggan, a Reagan appointee. “A racially diverse and ethnically diverse student body produces significant educational benefits such that diversity, in the context of higher education, constitutes a compelling government interest,” the judge wrote. “Although fixed racial quotas and racial balancing are not necessary to achieving that goal, the consideration of an applicant’s race during the admissions process is.”

Of course, by tweaking the 20-point entitlement down to 15 points or up to 30 points, the school can achieve whatever quota it wishes. Skin-color bonuses are just quotas by another name. The decision, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, guarantees not just that consideration of race remains official government policy, but that henceforth judges will be looking over the shoulders of school administrators to determine when the skin-color bonus is too high or, perhaps, not high enough.

University of Michigan officials may have felt they had no choice but to contrive a distinction between quotas and ethnic bonus points. Between 1995 and 1998, the school was running a two-tiered system that admitted preferred minorities under one set of criteria and admitted whites, Asians and others under another set of criteria. Jennifer Gratz, who had the grave misfortune to be born white, (in this case, her government-preferred status as a woman was not enough to offset her nongovernment-preferred status as a white) was denied admission while minorities without her extracurricular and educational achievements were admitted. She and other plaintiffs sued, charging that the two-tier system discriminated against her. Mr. Duggan agreed the old system was illegal. The University of Michigan may yet have to compensate her for violating her constitutional rights.

But school lawyers could already see that they would have trouble defending the two-tiered system. After the filing of Ms. Gratz’s lawsuit, Michigan hastily switched to the skin-color bonus scheme, which is the one Mr. Duggan approved. Given that there is no substantive difference one set of preference and the other — both apply different criteria to different racial groups — one wonders why they bothered to throw what was really a judicial Hail Mary pass.

Part of the answer may be that the school hoped to convince Mr. Duggan that skin color was just one of many biases the school applies when admitting students. It gives students with a perfect grade-point average up to 80 points towards admission. It gives them 12 points for top scores on standardized tests. Yes, it gives minorities 20 points, but it gives the same to students from poor families or to highly recruited athletes. Michigan residents get an extra 10 points, children of alums get four points, while those with outstanding an essay, leadership or individual achievement collect three points.

It’s interesting that Michigan values skin color more highly than top scores on standardized tests or leadership. So much for “leaders and best.” But it’s even more interesting that Michigan considers discrimination on the basis of race — which courts and civil rights organizations used to consider an “invidious” form of prejudice — to be no different than discriminating on the basis of income level or athletic ability. The ruling, said Michigan President Lee Bollinger, “shows the importance of seeing racial and ethnic diversity in a broader context of diversity, which is geographic and international and socio-economic and athletic and all the various forms of differences, complementary differences, that we draw on to compose classes year after year.”

See how benign racial discrimination is? It’s for our and Michigan’s own good. And if it is, why shouldn’t it continue in perpetuity, at least as long as politically favored groups benefit? Gone is the old war cry of the civil rights movement that a man should be judged on the content of his character — not the color of his skin.

But give Mr. Duggan and Mr. Bollinger their due. If they have done nothing else, they have provided working definitions for euphemisms such as “affirmative action” and “diversity”: an extra 20 points just for having the right skin color. One wonders how many Michigan grads will find this a victory worth hailing.