The beauty of diversity

April 02, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Glowing with the language of innocence, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has declared that the University of Texas at Austin no longer can use race as a factor in college admissions, not even in the name of ''diversity.''

Significantly, the court did not throw out ''diversity'' as a valid goal for universities. It allowed that ''a university may properly favor one applicant over another because of his ability to play the cello, make a downfield tackle . . . [his] relationship to alumni . . . or [his] economic or social background.''

Nevertheless, the court concluded, schools must ''scrutinize applicants individually, rather than resorting to the dangerous proxy of race.''

Don't universities always scrutinize applicants individually? The court's implication here is that ''diversity'' policies sweep blacks off the street and into our leading universities regardless of their individual qualifications or the value that the very experience of growing up black in America can bring to campus. Dangerous? ''Proxy'' refers to a person or thing that acts in the place of another person or thing. Universities have many proxies for academic ''merit.'' They include geographic origins, athletic prowess, well-connected relatives and a variety of other non-academic criteria.

Why is race the only one that constantly is singled out and targeted with buzz words like ''dangerous?'' Only the naive or the deceitful would propose that the direction into which affirmative action takes us is more ''dangerous'' than the era of white supremacy from which it moves us. In California, where affirmative action is expected to be a ballot issue this November, only about 55 percent of entering freshmen in the state's university system are selected for academic reasons (grade-point average and aptitude-test scores) alone. The rest are selected for a variety of reasons. Racial and ethnic diversity is only one of them.

The same is true across America. I have a white friend who says he got into an Ivy League university ''under affirmative action for Greek-American kids from Albuquerque.''

UCLA routinely gives preference to the already-privileged sons and daughters of ''major donor prospects'' as ''institutional-needs admissions,'' admitting them over thousands of applicants with higher grades, the Los Angeles Times reported a day after the Texas ruling.

Newspapers also revealed that Gov. Pete Wilson and several other University of California regents who had voted against affirmative action had used their influence to get the children of relatives, friends and business partners into the schools of their choice.

Choose the right parents

''Diversity'' is OK when it helps those who were far-sighted enough to pick the right parents, according to the Texas ruling. Only racial diversification is ''dangerous.'' Much has been conjectured -- without real evidence -- about how affirmative action hurts those it was intended to help, how it encourages ''rumors of inferiority'' even among blacks, how it makes its beneficiaries ''feel bad'' that they received an opportunity solely because of the conditions of their birth.

How sad I feel for them. I wonder why I never hear about the rich kids who have been hurt by preferences for the rich and well-connected. Are they, too, plagued by ''rumors of inferiority?'' Does the help they receive from their parents make them ''feel bad?''

Affirmative action is a modest reform, compared to all the fuss rTC that is made about it. Yet, those who would undo it without replacing it with some other effort to improve opportunities for blacks and other disadvantaged persons ring insincere when they say their goal is fairness.

Although the ruling applies only to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi for now, the Supreme Court could extend it to the entire country simply by upholding it. It has been called the death knell of affirmative action, though the death of affirmative action has been announced more times than Elizabeth Taylor's weddings.

I believe affirmative action stays alive because most Americans of all races agree, whether the courts recognize it or not, that most Americans are fair-minded and broad-minded enough to see some virtue to racial diversity. Affirmative action offends the sensibilities of most Americans when it appears to contradict the virtue of individualism. But, group relations also are crucially important in a pluralistic society and, in the '90s, we Americans get along better as individuals than we do as groups.

We cannot pretend, after the shock waves that followed the O.J. Simpson verdict, that blacks and whites now see American life pretty much the same way. At some point, if we are to have racial peace, I think we have to accept the virtue of diversity for its own sake.

''Let us be dissatisfied,'' Martin Luther King once preached, ''until integration is not seen as a problem, but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.'' Opportunities for campus diversity appear to be closing up. It's not a beautiful picture. It's not very fair, either.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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