Affirmative action fails again

By Charles Krauthammer

Washington Post, July 13, 2001

In a 1996 referendum, California voters outlawed racial preferences. Or did they? At the University of California, a lovely backdoor has been found for beating the ban.

The maneuver appears wholly innocuous. Who, after all, would complain if UC decided to give the SAT II twice as much weight as the SAT I in determining college admission? Sure, some people might think it odd. After all, when standardized tests such as SATs are denounced for cultural bias, a particular animus is reserved for the SAT II (which tests knowledge in specific subjects such as history, biology and French) on the grounds that it is more culturally influenced than the SAT (which measures general reasoning and linguistic ability).

Ah. But the beauty of this odd change is that it gets underqualified Hispanic students into the University of California system. In one predominately Hispanic high school, among the worst in the state, reports the Wall Street Journal, the number of graduates accepted to UC schools increased by more than 50 percent this year. How did they do it? They aced the Spanish language SAT II.

Being fluent in Spanish, they breezed through, often without study or preparation, a test designed to measure second language acquisition. Despite doing dismally on all the other tests, their spectacular scores in SAT II Spanish raised their average enough to get them into the better schools.

Presto. An almost foolproof way to give Hispanics a leg up — and the latest demonstration of the mindlessness and cynicism that has overtaken affirmative action.

Perhaps the most perverse effect of the SAT change is that it ignores or, indeed, injures blacks, the group for whom affirmative action was originally designed. Slots in UCLA’s freshman class are a commodity in fixed supply. For every unqualified Hispanic student to whom you give a free ride because of a bogus bonus based on nothing but linguistic accident, you have effectively bumped a qualified student who otherwise would have been admitted.

Other immigrants, too, get a boost from taking, say, the Chinese or Korean language SAT II. Who gets boxed out? Anglos and blacks.

Affirmative action was invented to help blacks as redress for the centuries of state-sponsored slavery and discrimination. But as other groups — women, Hispanics, Native Americans; the list is ever expanding — claimed a piece of the grievance pie, affirmative action molted into “diversity.” Diversity is simply the attempt to achieve rainbow representation for its own sake, without any pretense of redress or justice.

Justice? Consider: Doubling the weight given the SAT II benefits, even more perversely, newly arrived Hispanics over their more Americanized cousins. Second- or third-generation kids are far less likely to speak fluent Spanish. Thus, even within the now-favored Hispanic community, those who have been here the least amount of time are being awarded gratuitous advantage over those who have been here the longest.

By any measure of civic equity, the most deserving — those whose parents and grandparents have for decades contributed to America in skills, hard work, taxes and national service — get the least. An English-speaking third-generation Mexican American whose grandfather fought in Normandy gets nothing — in fact, he may even lose his slot at Berkeley to the newly arrived Guatemalan whose slate as a citizen is still blank.

Why are we doing this? For the shibboleth of diversity. Diversity at any cost. And the cost is considerable. In order to artificially inflate the number of Hispanics admitted, the new rule places students who are not academically prepared in colleges a notch or two above their ability.

The social wreckage created by such mismatches is enormous. Minority students are set up for failure, when they could have succeeded splendidly at less advanced institutions. And more advanced students, denied their opportunity to learn in an appropriate academic setting, are left with deep ethnic animosities that can last a lifetime.

When affirmative action was about justice, it at least had moral force. Opponents could argue about the social costs (unfairness, racial resentment, patronization of minority achievement) but they had to acknowledge the contrary claims of racial redress. You might disagree that racial preferences were the best solution, but you had to respect the moral seriousness of the idea.

But now? What is there to respect in a scheme for giving newly arrived immigrants a leg up over everyone, including blacks? The SAT ploy is a sideshow, to be sure, but there is no better illustration of the wretched state to which affirmative action has sunk than this: A naked spoils system that under the flag of diversity makes a mockery of the impulse for justice that once lay at the core of affirmative action.