In 2003 the Supreme Court attempted to define the circumstances under which a public university may consider a student’s race as part of its admissions decisions.
In a matched pair of cases, the court rejected the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, which used a point system that gave extra points to black students. But it endorsed the policy of Michigan’s law school, which gave “individualized consideration” to every applicant, treating each in a “holistic” manner that considered race as a “factor” but not a “determinative” factor.
Last week the Obama administration issued guidelines (replacing those issued by the Bush administration in 2008) for meeting the Supreme Court’s “holistic” test. Parallel guidelines were issued for primary and secondary education. They highlight the conflict that critics on both sides of the affirmative action argument maintain has undermined the court’s reasoning from the beginning: There is no way to square this circle.
If a factor may never be determinative, then it’s not a factor at all. There is no difference in principle between fuzzy arrangements to take race into account and explicit racial quotas. Either you accept the need for and legitimacy of using race as a factor in admissions decisions, or you don’t. We do.
Consider the Obama administration’s suggestion for how schools can meet the Supreme Court’s “no quotas” standard: “An institution could select schools ... based on their demographics (e.g., their racial or socioeconomic composition) and grant an admission preference to all students who have graduated from those schools, regardless of the race of the individual student.” In other words, according to these guidelines, it would be perfectly acceptable to guarantee a place to all students in every high school that is at least 75 percent black, but it violates the Constitution to reserve even a single seat exclusively for a black student.
According to the guidelines, you may design an admissions program that explicitly uses factors such as socioeconomic status or geography “or other race-neutral criteria” with the explicit goal of “drawing students from different racial backgrounds.” You also may explicitly use racial targets to measure the success of these other factors in substituting for race, and adjust them accordingly. But you may not have an explicit racial quota.
In other words, you can’t say, “We want a student body that’s at least 10 percent black, and we will favor blacks in admissions until we reach that goal.” But you may say, “We want a student body that is at least 10 percent black, and we will favor people who live in predominantly black neighborhoods until we reach that goal.”
With an African-American president, it’s getting harder to maintain that affirmative action is needed to guarantee equal opportunity for every racial minority. But affirmative action is still necessary at most selective institutions. First, in order to expand opportunity to applicants disadvantaged by race and class, and second, to guarantee a diverse student body, which is desirable for reasons apart from equal opportunity for any individual.
When the children of alumni, offspring of wealthy donors, star athletes and others benefit from explicit favoritism, it’s absurd to suggest that favoritism toward black students is what stands between us and a perfect meritocracy. Diversity of races, along with other forms of diversity, is a perfectly valid goal for institutions of all sorts. It’s too bad that the only way to achieve it is to pretend that you’re not trying.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: email@example.com.