Blame Affirmative Action for the Drop in Black and Hispanic Enrollments

BERKELEY, Calif -- The professors were wrong. For years, they assured us that affirmative action would change America -- make college an option for minority children.But three years ago, even before recent court-and-voter-mandated affirmative action cutbacks in Texas and California, minority enrollment in American higher education had slowed, according to the American Council on Education. ACE President Stanley Ikenbury warns now that the slowdown could be an "early warning of what lies ahead."Unlike Mr. Ikenbury, I turn my thoughts to what lies behind. I belong to the first student generation of affirmative action. Actually, affirmative action found me in college in the late 1960s. One year I had a scholarship for being bright; the next I had a scholarship for being brown.Why? I remember asking my professors. (I was, in those years, more innocently liberal and the thought that I might be rewarded for having brown skin was as troubling as the prospect of being penalized my complexion.)My professors said not to worry. They said I would become a "role model." My success would make it easier for generations following. Or they waived their sad little "Diversity" flag. Or my professors insisted they were certain that upon graduation I would return to "my community."Who knows from where my professors gathered a sense of my community? Perhaps "West Side Story." I didn't have the nerve to tell them, in those years, that my "barrio" was a white, middle-class neighborhood and that my "homeboys" were kids with freckled faces who wore braces on their teeth.In that dawning era of affirmative action, many thoughtless, well-meaning, sloppy words floated around the campus. "Minority" was the worst. To this day, American higher education cannot easily distinguish between the cultural minority and the numerical minority. The distinction, alas, is crucial.There are some people in this country (the kids in the street gang, for example) who are alienated from public life. They are cultural minorities -- and they come in all colors. The only things they have in common are their poverty and lack of educational options.Numerical minorities, on the other hand, are groups of people who -- as groups -- are under-represented in public life. At the blonde university, clearly, I was a numerical minority. But, less obviously to my professors, I was not a cultural minority.In truth, most of us who have benefited from affirmative action over the last 25 years have been middle-class Americans, not cultural minorities. But because we come from numerical minority groups, we have been able to advance. We advanced on the backs of those less fortunate. The exclusion of others of our race or ethnic group from college made our presence within the institution important. To put the matter more plainly: because many Hispanics were absent from college, I was able to be rewarded.The odd thing is that affirmative action, during all of these years, has been advanced as a program of the political left. In fact, affirmative action encouraged a kind of parody Marxism -- the revolutionary creation of a bourgeoisie.In California last year, a majority voted to undo affirmative action in state agencies, including the University of California. For many years now, middle-class Americans have been uneasy with affirmative action, because it is unfair to their children. Let it be noted that affirmative action is more unfair to the children of poverty.None of this could one have said in the romantic '60s, those years on campus when professors were terrified that some bored undergraduate might deem their courses "irrelevant." No one in those years bothered to question the leftist jargon regarding racism, to distinguish, for example, between strategies for combating legalized segregation and de facto segregationIn the segregationist south, one black child entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, could change the condition of her entire race. In the north, the dynamics of racism were different. One hundred or five hundred black students could be admitted to Harvard, but their admission did not change their entire race. Just look at America's inner cities if you want proof.I remember, some years ago, talking with a group of teenagers -- kids any sociologist would describe as children "at risk." They came from homes of poverty, many from violent streets. I asked what they thought of affirmative action. They stared at me. In a room of 14 children, only one had heard of the term.The fact is that after 25 years no one holds the educational innovations of the 1960s responsible for producing results. After a full generation of bilingual education, for example, the Hispanic dropout rate from high school continues unabated. After a generation of affirmative action, most children of poverty do not imagine themselves in college.President Clinton has, meanwhile, reassured members of the black bourgeoisie that he intends to support affirmative action. If I were President Clinton, instead of worrying about how many black undergraduates make it to Stanford, I would work to reform the primary school education of poor children in America so that they might grow up able to compete against Chelsea Clinton for a place at Stanford.As it is now, many black and brown children in America cannot compete. And the professors cannot tell us why. Indeed, the very failure of affirmative action to produce results becomes their argument for its continuance.Thus did we hear from the dean of the law school at the University of California last week. At Berkeley the number of black students admitted to next year's entering class has fallen by 81 percent. The number of Hispanic students has fallen by 50 percent. And what does the dean say?Not for a moment does he wonder why, after 25 years of affirmative action, black and Hispanic undergraduates cannot make it into his law school. No. The dean sighs. The decline in black and Hispanic enrollments is "precisely what we feared would result from the elimination of affirmative action."Poor professors! Poor America!


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