Let's have both excellence and diversity

April 06, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - I was raised in South-Central Los Angeles, a poor and gritty black enclave. My neighborhood wasn't in no tourist brochures.

Small wonder. South-Central was storefronts covered by graffiti, jobless men gathering on street corners, heavy iron bars on windows and doors. It was drive-by shootings, public drunkenness and open-air drug markets. It was dying too suddenly, too soon.

But I was lucky. In 1973, I was accepted into college under a special admissions program designed for kids like me.

That's why I listened with such keen interest to an exchange that took place a few days ago as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the University of Michigan affirmative action case. Lawyers for the university's law school were explaining that it uses race as a criterion - one among many - to help create a diverse student body.

Justice Antonin Scalia was predictably unimpressed. The university itself, he said, created the racial imbalance it now seeks to correct. After all, the university's law school is an elite institution. If racial diversity was so important to the school, he said, it should not have adopted such high standards, since that couldn't help but exclude minority students. Instead of being a "super-duper law school" - Justice Scalia's term - it should "lower the standards" so black kids can compete.

In other words, you can have diversity or you can have excellence, but you can't both.

Which is, to put it mildly, an interesting opinion.

Yes, I know what he was getting at: Black students, in the aggregate, have lower test scores than their white counterparts. I also know that test scores are but one measure of potential or worth, important but hardly conclusive.

Not to minimize the poor performance of black students. Their lack of academic success is a continuing vexation for anyone who cares about them, about education, about the nation's future. But Justice Scalia seems to find it all too easy to divorce the problem from its cause.

Yes, many black students perform poorly in school. But it can hardly be immaterial that America spent 12 generations making sure they did. By law, by custom and by the ever-present threat of violence, the nation did everything it could to retard the academic progress of black people.

Although affirmative action was defended before the court as a means of achieving diversity, it's important to remember that this was never its most important function. Rather, it was born as a means of repairing damage America spent 3 1/2 centuries inflicting.

Imagine that Joe chopped off Rick's foot and Rick later showed up at the starting line of the New York City Marathon wearing a prosthesis. Justice Scalia's comment is a bit like Joe saying Rick ought to be barred from the race because he runs funny. Yeah, it's true, Joe, but whose fault is that?

Of course, Justice Scalia only reflects what many of us feel when it comes to black kids and intelligence. When I said I went to school on a special program "for kids like me," I'm sure some people thought I meant "black kids," "poor kids," or "underperforming kids."

Actually, I meant smart kids. Academically advanced kids. I started classes under the University of Southern California's Resident Honors Program when I was 15.

And yeah, I stacked the deck to give a different impression. But would the impression have been so easily manipulable if we - and I mean all of us - were not so primed to take it for granted that black kids and smarts are mutually exclusive? It bothers me that a Supreme Court justice might think that way. Bothers me infinitely more to think that somewhere, a black kid might.

"Excellence or diversity" says the judge. But no dichotomy was ever more false.

And there's no reason in the world we can't choose both.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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