This week marks the beginning of the end of the racial spoils system that has come to symbolize affirmative action in higher education, as well as state contracting and employment. Ward Connerly, chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and the father of the California Civil Rights Initiative, which abolished state-sponsored racial preferences in California more than a decade ago, has launched a new effort to place similar initiatives on the ballot in 2008 in several states, including Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona.
I was proud to be by his side in Denver on Monday to announce the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative along with another Colorado native and familiar figure in the fight against racial and gender preferences, Valery Pech Orr, whose suit against federal minority set-asides led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Adarand v. Pena. For me especially, this day has been a long time coming.
It has been nearly four decades since I became involved with affirmative action in Colorado. When I entered the University of Colorado as a freshman in the fall of 1965, there were few black or Hispanic students enrolled. During my five years as an undergraduate and graduate student at CU, first at the Denver campus and then in Boulder, I encountered only one other Hispanic in any of my classes and perhaps one or two blacks.
That didn’t seem right to me. So, I joined with a group of other students to persuade the university to aggressively recruit more minority students and set up tutoring programs and summer sessions of remedial courses to assist those who lacked the skills to compete effectively. The Educational Opportunity Program started out with great promise — it was exactly what was intended by affirmative action: to cast a wider net and provide the skills necessary to compete on an equal footing.
But it soon transmogrified into a program that lowered standards and radicalized students in the process. The university not only admitted students whose academic preparation made it nearly impossible for them to succeed, but it permitted many to remain in school despite failing grades. Worse, the program’s organizers encouraged students to take largely segregated ethnic studies courses, whose primary purpose was to forge ethnic solidarity and reinforce students’ feelings that they were victims of a racist society bent on their destruction.
By the time I left Boulder in 1970, I had become a critic of affirmative action, and my later experiences as an instructor in the affirmative action program at UCLA made me a downright opponent of such programs. It became clear to me that universities were applying racial double standards that helped no one, least of all the students who were the intended beneficiaries. The real problem blacks and Hispanics faced was a skills gap that affirmative action programs didn’t even attempt to solve.
In the 40 years that affirmative action programs have operated, millions of deserving white and Asian students have been passed over at competitive schools across the country in order to admit black and Hispanic students with significantly lower standardized admission test scores (usually 200-350 points lower on a 1600-point scale) and lower high school grades (typically a half point lower on a 4-point scale). These affirmative action students often struggle to compete in the classroom, and huge numbers of them simply drop out. Instead of helping black and Hispanic students succeed, affirmative action programs mismatch students and institutions.
But an end to racial preferences won’t mean a return to the days when blacks and Hispanics were simply missing from college classrooms, as in my youth. In California, which outlawed preferences in 1996, more black and Hispanic students are enrolled in college today than ever before — and more importantly, a higher percentage of them are graduating. In 1995, only 26 percent of black and Hispanic students actually graduated from the UC system; now 51 percent graduate, roughly equal to the white and Asian rate.
Affirmative action programs were never meant to be permanent, something former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reiterated in her majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2003 University of Michigan law school case. Yet these programs are still available to the children — and even grandchildren — of the students I taught 40 years ago.
It’s about time we ended racial double standards once and for all. In doing so, we will actually improve the chances that more black and Hispanic students will earn college degrees.