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By Nathan Glazer
THE CASE of the University of Michigan's programme of preference for black and Hispanic applicants now before the Supreme Court of the United States has aroused enormous interest. The number of amicus briefs that have been submitted to the court by various groups is almost a hundred, a figure unequalled in Supreme Court cases. Amicus briefs are submitted by parties who are not part of the case but who claim to have an interest in it and who want to influence the decision of the court. Some 30 briefs have been submitted supporting the plaintiffs (the students), some 60 supporting the University of Michigan, which is defending its policies of racial preference on the ground of the value of diversity of students for education. Commentators on the upcoming case have asserted that in effect all these briefs are aimed at a single Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor. How she rules, which side she joins, will determine whether racial preference in some form continues in American higher education, or not.
What is most striking is the range of support the practices of racial preference have gained over the past 30 years. The briefs supporting racial preferences came, as expected, from civil rights organisations and leading colleges and universities, including the prestigious private Ivy League universities that are not presently threatened by suits attacking their admissions practices. (The University of Michigan is a public, state supported institution.) But less expected were the briefs in favour of the University of Michigan's practices submitted by the leading American corporations, and most startling a brief by leading generals and military officers. They argued that the armed forces, which have a substantial proportion of minorities a higher percentage than in the population at large cannot be effectively led by an officer corps that is unrepresentative of the men they lead. Thus they support the policies of the national military academies for the Army, Navy and Air Force, which presently give preferences to blacks and Hispanics. Ironically, the same national administration that has argued against the policies of the University of Michigan in its brief to the Supreme Court, tolerates these policies in its own institutions that train officers!
This underlines the shift in the pattern of support and opposition to these policies. Initially, many traditional liberals opposed these policies, because they were committed to the idea of a society that operated on colour-blind principles and that did not consider race a relevant factor in making decisions on employment, admission to elite institutions, and the like. Conservatives also opposed these policies, some because they too were committed to these principles (many conservatives supported the Civil Rights revolution), others because they were simply unsympathetic to minority interests. Over time, the strong opponents of affirmative action have been increasingly limited to conservatives, and the strongest among these opponents have been the so-called "neoconservatives,'' those who previously had a liberal background.
The term "neoconservatism'' is generally used to refer to the foreign policy positions of this group, which presently has great influence in the administration of President Bush. But neoconservatives are also defined by their position on some domestic issues, of which the key one is affirmative action, which they have always opposed. What will be the effect of the expected 5 to 4 decision, which may or may not accept racial diversity as a legitimate ground for racial preference in college and university admissions? I will predict that whatever way it goes, the decision will have little effect on the actual practices of colleges and universities. Even if the Supreme Court bans racial preference, it is inconceivable that it will decree that only academic achievement and scores in tests can be the basis of admission to public colleges and universities. That would go against the grain of the history of admission practices in American colleges and universities.
American colleges and universities have generally, even before the rise of affirmative action in the 1970s, taken into account other factors in making their admission decisions. They have often given preference to athletes, because intercollegiate athletic competition is such an important part of college life in the U.S. The private institutions have given preference to children of alumni, because this is one way of keeping up the flow of contributions on which they depend. Public institutions have often given preference to the children of State legislators, and private institutions have given admission to the children of benefactors and of major public figures, even if they scored well below the average student they admitted.
If race is banned by the Supreme Court as a factor in making admission decisions, the colleges and universities will find other ways of making up for the academic deficiencies of blacks. They will take into account factors of family hardship, or income, or enterprise on overcoming difficulties, or the educational limitations of the schools the applicants have attended, but one way or another they will keep up, I believe, the number of black and Hispanic students.
Representation in the chief institutions of a society has become one of the tests of a democracy. The march of equality, which Tocqueville saw so long ago as the key moving force in modern society, progresses to the point where the mere fact of academic insufficiency will not be allowed to become a bar to a substantial representation of racial minorities in the institutions of higher education, which have become the gateway to occupations of high prestige.
It is not only in America that we see the forceful demand for presence in these important gateway institutions. Of course such programmes have long been in existence well before they were created in the U.S. in India. But these practices are spreading to some surprising places. Just recently, we have seen the beginnings of affirmative action in Brazil's public universities, in order to increase the number of black students, and we have seen a demand for affirmative action even in South Korea, the most homogeneous of nations. The argument there is that the southeast region does not get a fair share of student admissions. In both Brazil and Korea, applicants from groups or areas which provide greater numbers of well-qualified students will protest, as they see their chances of admission reduced.
We may deplore this development, which depreciates a value that is certainly good in itself, the value of academic competition and achievement, but nothing can withstand the claims of equality, and our societies, including the U.S., will have to adjust their commitment to merit and high academic achievement to these claims. We see the conflict between two democratic values in the most recent poll in the U.S. on affirmative action in higher education. On the one hand, a majority of Americans think that affirmative action programmes at colleges and universities contribute to the well-being of society. On the other hand, a majority believe a college or university should not admit minority students with lower scores than other students. We will simply have to cope with this dilemma until minority students, and in particular black students, begin to achieve at higher levels, at which point the conflict between representation and achievement will be resolved.
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