On the same day that my recent article discussing the new attempt to repeal California’s prohibition of racial preference was posted here, William McGurn had a terrific article in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the University of California’s decision last week to drop the SAT and ACT admissions tests. “During the debate among the California regents this week,” the New York Times had reported two days earlier, “numerous speakers used the word ‘racist’ to describe the exams.” That same day, the Journal published a strong editorial denouncing UC’s decision as putting “racial politics above merit.”
Eliminating the SAT and ACT — the only objective measure applied to all UC freshman applicants — would go a long way toward making the prohibition against racial preference irrelevant. It would be a license to discriminate, creating an open season on Asians.
No one thinks that Asians are “overrepresented” in the University of California because admissions officers are biased in their favor or against other groups (except perhaps whites). It is because Asians have higher academic qualifications than other groups — especially but not only their performance on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. If you want to reduce the numbers of Asians — as the powerful representatives of the black and Hispanic communities most assuredly want to do — the surest way to do so is to remove standardized tests from the admissions equation.
Recurring attacks on the principle of colorblind equality embodied in Proposition 209 and its progeny in Washington and Michigan are ongoing. Once standardized admissions tests are eliminated, however, Prop. 209’s prohibition of racial preference becomes virtually irrelevant in college admissions. Even if that prohibition remains in the law, admission offices would be free again to assign benefits and burdens based on race at will since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to spot the discrimination or prove it if detected.
It is by now well established that Asians were the biggest beneficiary of the adoption of Prop. 209. In several articles culminating in his book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has thrown a harsh light on the enormity of the burden and benefits bestowed by racial preference.
In a 2005 article, for example, based on a study of over 124,000 applicants to elite colleges, he and a co-author found that if affirmative action were eliminated, “Asian applicants would gain the most. They would occupy four out of every five seats created by accepting fewer African-American and Hispanic students.” Regarding the SAT, in a 2009 Inside Higher Ed article, Espenshade found that “black applicants to selective universities receive a 450 point ‘boost’ compared to otherwise similarly qualified Asian applicants.”
In the absence of the SAT or something similar, there would be no need to assign an attention gathering preferential “boost.” Favored minorities could be preferred over disfavored ones without raising any red flags.
Merit or Mirror?
Most prominent critics of race preferences argue that admission decisions should be based on “merit,” and they tend to oppose legacy preferences for the same reason. If I were prominent, I would be an exception: although I strongly prefer merit as a policy, I believe colleges are and should be free to give preferential treatment to whom they choose — so long as those preferences are not based on race, religion, sex, or ethnicity.
Thus, it is important to recognize that even if Proposition 209 remains in force, there will be nothing to prevent the University of California from lowering its admissions standards. It might be necessary, however, to repeal Prop. 209 if those who want to get rid of it are serious about their intent to make the university “look like California,” which would require ensuring racial and ethnic proportionality in admissions.
There is good reason to doubt whether they are serious. As noted above, the Fall 2019 enrollment in the University of California was 33% Asian, but Asians make up only 15% of California’s population. Are the black and Hispanic legislators who are determined to increase “diversity” — by which they mean more blacks and Hispanics — really going to propose cutting Asian admissions in half?
There is also a question of what those legislators propose to do about another troubling minority, whites. It is a little recognized fact that whites are the most “underrepresented” group in the UC system: 37% of the California population but only 21% of 2019 UC students. Whites, in short, are only 56% of what “mirror” advocates would call equity or parity. Blacks, by contrast, are 4% of the students and 6.5% of the California population — 61.5% of parity/equity. And Hispanics: 25% of students, 39.3% of population — 63.6% of parity/equity.
In short, for the University of California to “look like California,” the number of Asians would have to be cut in half, and the number of whites increased proportionally much more than blacks or Hispanics.
One wonders if the “mirror” advocates really want that.