What Race Preferences Hide

Mona Charen, Townhall, April 25, 2014

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Any person attempting to overcome hardship can look to Sonia Sotomayor for inspiration. But as she demonstrated in her long, impassioned dissent in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the experience of benefiting from race preferences has left her prickly and defensive on the subject. As others, including her Supreme Court colleague Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued, that kind of gnawing insecurity is one of the consequences of preferences. Others are never sure if you’ve achieved your position entirely on merit, and neither are you.

Sotomayor’s argument rests entirely on a fallacy–that lowering admission standards for certain minority applicants is the only possible response to concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in American life. “Race matters,” she scolded again and again in her dissent. Actually, she went further and argued that a Michigan constitutional amendment that explicitly forbids racial discrimination amounts to racial discrimination.

The contention that white, Asian and other students should be disadvantaged because of discrimination against blacks that ceased decades before they were born is facially unjust. Under the regime of preferences, the white child of a poor waitress from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who would be the first person in her family to ever attend college, will have to get SAT scores about 300 points higher (depending upon the school) than the black daughter of a dermatologist from Beverly Hills, California. An Asian student would have to score even higher, because that minority is, according to those who insist on counting by race, “overrepresented.”

Admissions officers at selective schools pretend they are offering opportunity to “underserved” minorities, but in reality, they are simply lowering standards for already-privileged students with the preferred skin tone. Ninety-two percent of blacks at elite colleges are from the top half of the income distribution. A study a decade ago at Harvard Law School found that only a third of students had four African-American grandparents. Another third were from interracial families. The rest were children of recent immigrants from Africa or the West Indies.

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Dropping preferences is not harmful to minority students; it’s beneficial. It should not be the end of the story, though. The gap in achievement between some minority groups and others can and should be addressed. Contra Sotomayor, it’s not so much that “race matters” as that schools matter. The shame of the nation is that poor children continue to be so trapped in terrible schools. That is the disgrace that race counters cloak.

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