Getting Serious About Race: The Next 25 Years

The challenge is to address the causes of the disastrously deficient academic performance of many minorities

"We are mindful ... that '[a] core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race.' ... Accordingly, race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time.... We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in racial diversity] approved today."

So said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her June 23 opinion for the 5-4 Supreme Court majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the heavy racial preferences used by the University of Michigan Law School. (How heavy? "The figures indicate that race is worth over one full grade point of college average," noted three of the federal appeals court judges who considered the case last year.) O'Connor's 25-year sunset clause illustrates the remarkable fluidity of her conception of "the equal protection of the laws." More important, the sunset should be seen as laying down a challenge to the self-congratulatory university presidents, politicians, interest groups, business leaders, newspaper editors, and other right-thinking people who have now won a license to discriminate for another quarter-century against Asian-Americans and whites in pursuit of racial balance.

The challenge is for them—for us all—to get serious about fixing the root causes of the disastrously deficient academic performance that leaves the vast majority of Hispanic and (especially) African-American kids incapable of competing for admission to selective universities without the crutch of racial double standards.

Justice O'Connor's opinion—a sorry muddle of "utter logical confusion," as detailed in a merciless dissection in The Washington Post by Michael Kinsley—asserted that since 1978, "the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased." She thereby implied that the racial gaps in academic performance have narrowed in recent years and are on the way to disappearing.

This was, to put it very charitably, wishful thinking. The hard fact is that there's no "evidence that the gap in credentials between black and white students is shrinking," as Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out in his dissenting opinion. To the contrary, after gaining substantially on whites in various measures of academic skills from 1971 (when comparative data were first collected) until about 1988, African-Americans have made no visible progress over the past 15 years; by some key measures, they have lost ground. If this trend continues, the number of African-Americans capable of winning admission to our most selective universities on their academic merits may well be even smaller 25 years hence than it is now.

For example, Thomas said, among law school applicants with LSAT scores of 165 or higher—the range attained by most whites and Asians admitted by top law schools—the proportion who are black dropped slightly between 1993 and 2000, from 1.1 percent to 1 percent.

More alarming are the data, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores of a representative national sample of 17-year-olds, about the racial gaps in high school. The mean differential between blacks and whites in reading skills shrank from 5.9 years in 1971 to 2.5 years in 1988, according to a 1997 book by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White. But then, the book and more recent data show, the black-white gap began to expand. The results of the 2002 reading assessment, just released, show that black 12th-graders scored 5 points below white 8th-graders, which put them 4.7 years behind whites in their grade—more than two years further behind than blacks were 15 years ago. The trends in math scores are similar. Still worse, the science gap between blacks and whites grew by about a year between 1971 and the late 1990s. (The Thernstroms, who are among the nation's leading scholars on race in modern America, oppose racial preferences as bad for all Americans, especially African-Americans.)

The trends in combined SAT scores tell a similar story. The black-white gap, which had declined substantially (from about 240 to 189 points) between 1976 and 1988, has inched back up since then, to 201 points in 2001 and 203 points in 2002, according to a March 5 article in the pro-affirmative-action Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. "There is no compelling evidence that any improvement is in the offing," it said.

"Income alone does not explain the racial scoring gap," the article added. For example, "Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 46 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of between $80,000 and $100,000.... Blacks from families with incomes of more than $100,000 had a mean SAT score that was 142 points below the mean score for whites from families at the same income level." And in Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, scholar John U. Ogbu documents "a wide gap in academic performance ... between white and black students" from similar socioeconomic backgrounds at the same schools in affluent Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Why, after all these years of federal spending and special programs and racial preferences, are black students still so uncompetitive? Ogbu's richly detailed, empathetic account attributes such gaps largely to "cultural and language differences," including, by their own accounts, that "black students in Shaker Heights do not work hard or to their full capacity"; that they equate "good school performance with acting white"; that even many affluent black parents are largely disengaged from their kids' educations; and that many blacks blame poor academic performance on teachers and on an oppressive white society.

Others contend that racial preferences may themselves hold back their supposed beneficiaries by teaching black and Hispanic students that they are not expected to excel and need not work as hard as others to get into good colleges. The result, Thomas said in his dissent, may be to "help fulfill the bigot's prophecy about black underperformance—just as it confirms the conspiracy theorist's belief that 'institutional racism' is at fault for every racial disparity in our society."

Even if racial preferences don't aggravate gaps in academic performance, such preferences do nothing to reduce those gaps—an objective far more vital to the futures of tens of millions of black and Hispanic kids than getting affirmative-action tickets to elite universities for a fortunate, fairly affluent few thousand.

These racial gaps may well be a legacy of slavery and past discrimination. But dwelling on all that, as victimologists so love to do, does not do any African-American child, anywhere, a bit of good. Nor does the racial-grievance industry offer a shred of hope for closing the academic gaps that will doom most black (and Hispanic) kids to bad jobs at bad wages until they are given—and are motivated to take advantage of—decent elementary and secondary school educations.

This will require much more than simply spending more money on inner-city schools. Cambridge, Mass., spends $17,000 a year per student on its public schools—more than the nation's wealthiest suburban school districts—while keeping class sizes very small and aggressively pursuing racial balance and equality. Yet Cambridge's black students have done very badly on statewide tests, compared with their white classmates and with blacks in other Massachusetts school districts that spend half as much per student, according to a forthcoming book by the Thernstroms, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (to be published in October by Simon & Schuster).

The imperative is to reform the schools, by confronting such intractable problems as civil service rules that make it impossible for principals to get rid of nonperforming teachers and legal rules that make it impossible for teachers to prevent unruly students from constantly disrupting classrooms and thus destroying the learning process for all. Effective reform requires facing down bitter resistance from entrenched bureaucracies, teachers unions, and others wedded to the catastrophic status quo. It also means candidly confronting the deep cultural problems documented by Ogbu and evidenced by the lagging academic performance even of affluent black children at the best schools.

Will the champions of racial preferences simply celebrate their victory and return to discrimination as usual? Or will they now get serious about attacking the real problems that plague black and Hispanic Americans, by taking on the teachers unions and the Democratic politicians whom the unions control? Watch what the victors do. The next 25 years—indeed, the next 25 months—will show whether their real goal is to provide black kids with quality educations or to increase their own self-esteem and social status.