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 hadn’t argued by 1975, while today’s 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 tests.
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 College’s 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 America’s 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 couldn’t 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 King’s 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 be irrelevant.
City College’s 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 College’s 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 College’s 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 of it.
City College’s 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 skills.
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 America’s promise is to create a colorblind state.
Whatever significance skin color once had, it no longer has it for most Americans. Since the Supreme Court’s 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 as apply.
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. America’s 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.