Posted on December 14, 2004

Color-Blind Progress

OpinionJournal, December 13, 2004

You wouldn’t know it from reading the papers. But the U.S. Office of Civil Rights scored an important victory recently when Wisconsin agreed to restructure a scholarship program that discriminates based on race and ethnicity. It’s the latest sign of a welcome trend away from racially exclusive programs in higher education.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year regarding the University of Michigan’s race-conscious admissions policies has hastened the trend, but schools were coming around even before the ruling. Since 2002, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Williams, Indiana University and dozens of others have opened up scholarships, internships and summer programs to all students, regardless of race.

Much of the credit belongs to organizations — the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Center for Individual Rights and the National Association of Scholars — committed to color-blind education polices. Two years ago, the Center for Equal Opportunity sent a letter to MIT, whose summer program for high school students interested in science and technology excluded Asians and whites.

When MIT failed to respond, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, and the college then ended the racial exclusion. Letters to Princeton and other schools with similarly restrictive programs soon followed. The center next asked the National Association of Scholars — a network of academics, trustees and administrators — to encourage their members to call attention to similar programs across the country. And that’s when ivory really started cracking.

“We were sort of surprised that so many programs were blatantly described on the Web sites as being open only to this race or that race,” says Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity. “We came up with a model letter, explained the law, pointed out that MIT and Princeton had changed their programs, and sort of added to the letter as other schools came along.”

Then came the Michigan decision, with the High Court holding that schools could give some consideration to race but that they couldn’t go so far as to maintain separate admissions criteria for members of minority groups. In other words, applicants must be treated as individuals. How novel.

Which explains why Wisconsin’s “Minority Precollege Scholarship Program” will be dropping the “minority” come July 1, 2005. The program, which provides scholarships for some 4,000 students in grades 6-12 to attend summer camp at colleges and universities throughout the state, had been using race and ethnicity as eligibility requirements.

This time the complaint was filed by a private citizen and against a state rather than a school. But the principle remains the same, and the Bush Administration deserves credit for its role. Besides, from a public policy standpoint, race neutrality is much more conducive to targeting truly underprivileged students, which states and schools claim is their real goal. Think how many poor whites and Asians are overlooked by policies that assume — even though Census data refute the notion — that every black and Latino hails from a ghetto?

Meanwhile, some of our friends are whispering that Alberto Gonzales and Margaret Spellings, the President’s choices for Attorney General and Education Secretary, respectively, may not want to defend this color-blind approach to education. We hope our friends are wrong, but we’ll be watching.