It is remarkable how little has changed in the past 30
to 35 years. Despite the myriad scholars, journalists, judges, politicians,
and citizens who have debated the merits of affirmative action preferences,
the arguments in 2000 are no different from those of 1970. Opponents
today say little that Thomas Sowell hadnt argued by 1975, while
todays proponents are content to repeat the claims of student
and faculty radicals from the early 1970s.
Thus, it was surprising, and refreshing, to see Susan
Sturm and Lani Guinier propose "shift[ing] the terrain of the debate."
Sturm and Guinier implicitly concede that preference proponents cannot
carry the day while traditional measures of merit prevail. Thus, they
mount a frontal assault on the "prevailing selection procedures"
of American society: academic standards measured by paper-and-pencil
Unfortunately, their argument is not at all new. Nor do
we lack for evidence about how their proposal would work. In 1970, City
College of New York embarked on precisely the same social experiment
advocated by Sturm and Guinier today: open admissions. While the City
College administration shared their concerns about racial equality and
merit, the history of City Colleges experiment highlights the
inherent problems in sacrificing merit on the altar of race.
Located on a hill overlooking Harlem, City College has
a historic devotion to Americas democratic commitment to higher
education; it counts eight Nobel laureates among its alumni. At the
same time, City College was tuition-free, and had a long history of
admitting minority students who couldnt get in anywhere else.
By the late-1960s, however, its demanding admissions standards were
preventing virtually any black and Puerto Rican students from attending.
As the black power movement rumbled across campus after
campus, radical black students took over City College. They demanded
that the administration dramatically increase the number of black and
Puerto Rican students in its freshman classes. With racial angst hanging
over the country in the wake of race riots in Newark and Watts, and
Martin Luther Kings assassination, the administration relented.
Beginning in 1970, City College would admit half of the incoming class
based on traditional academic criteria. The other half would come through
an open admissions program from predominantly black and Puerto Rican
high schools in New York City. For these students, academic merit would
City Colleges experiment has failed. Its efforts
to create a student body with the right mix of skin colors have polarized
it into two schools. Students admitted based on their prior academic
performance continue to succeed. City Colleges School of Engineering
remains one of the best schools in the country, attracting top-flight
students from around the world. The English Department is also enjoying
a renaissance. Both departments alumni often proceed to top graduate
programs in the country.
However, the students admitted via City Colleges
open admissions program are not enjoying these benefits. They drift
through remedial math, writing, reading, and "College Skills"
classes. Knowing that retaking these classes will do the students little
good, professors pass many students who cannot even take notes. They
simply have not developed the intellectual discipline necessary to succeed
in high school, much less college. Eventually a few may succeed, but
they do so in spite of the open admissions program, rather than because
City Colleges open admissions program should give
pause to anyone questioning the value of merit standards. Simply saying
that merit is unimportant does not make it so. The problem that Sturm
and Guinier hope to fix, and the problem that City College was unable
to fix, is that, among other factors, our K-12 schools have failed far
too many minority students. For better or for worse, the freshman year
in college is too late to teach students basic quantitative and analytical
Unfortunately, Sturm and Guinier ignore this fundamental
reality. Their prescription of emphasizing race anew merely resurrects
the worst of our history. For its entire history, American governments
at all levels have sorted us into categories based on our skin color:
slave, Indian, free black, octoroon, Caucasian, Hispanic, etc. It is
a long and sordid history, one for which we should all be ashamed. The
next step in fulfilling Americas promise is to create a colorblind
Whatever significance skin color once had, it no longer
has it for most Americans. Since the Supreme Courts historic decision
in Loving v. Virginia, marriage between a man and a woman of
different "races" has grown exponentially. Today, in California,
more children are born to "interracial" couples than are born
to either black or Asian couples. Even the Census Bureau is beginning
to realize that skin color no longer matters. Individuals identifying
their "race" on federal forms can check as many race boxes
These are important trends, but they alone will not create
a colorblind state. The next crucial step is to get rid of those silly
little boxes altogether. Race advocacy groups like the NAACP and MALDEF
are fighting to preserve their racial categories on government forms,
but they are on the wrong side of history. As the taboo against dating
and marrying across race lines further fades, Americans are recognizing
how anachronistic and destructive these race boxes are. According to
a recent Zogby poll, 82 percent of Americans believe the government
should get out of the race-counting business.
It is time to move the debate forward. Americas
future lies in embracing individuals, rather than shunting them into
categories. Our future lies in our children. The greatest service we
can do for them is to create a world where they will scratch their heads
in bewilderment at what all the fuss was about. If our grandchildren
must attend academic conferences to figure out what we meant by race,
we will have accomplished a truly monumental work. The next step in
creating that world is for government to stop color-coding Americans.
is author of Creating
Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences and chairman of the
American Civil Rights Institute.
New Democracy Forum: Click here
to read other responses to "The Future of Affirmative Action," by Susan
Sturm and Lani Guinier.