White House whitewash

Maybe he was African-American. Maybe she was Latino or Asian. Maybe he or she was poor, had abusive parents or faced some other disadvantage we can barely imagine. We’ll never know. But back in the late 1960s, someone who qualified for admittance into Yale was not allowed in, and another, unqualified student was admitted.

George W. Bush, despite a C average and an unimpressive 1208 on his SATs, got into Yale because his grandfather was on the school’s board of trustees and his father was a rich and famous alum.

Now, on the eve of what is potentially the most important Supreme Court case in decades, the Bush administration is urging a divided Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action in college admissions policies. It’s unfair, apparently, for colleges to try to compensate for the disadvantages faced by minority applicants, but it’s perfectly fine for schools to admit students whose sole qualification is having been born into the right family.

Still, despite the appalling nature of Bush’s position, we should probably thank him. Few actions in recent years have so thoroughly exposed the hypocrisy of those who so loudly oppose affirmative action.

When it comes to race-based admissions policies, these people often start to sound like born-again civil libertarians, maintaining that ethnicity should never be a factor in college admissions or elsewhere. Some even invoke Martin Luther King Jr., who dreamed of a society in which his children would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

But we all know this colorblind society has not come into being, and attacking one of the few programs expressly designed to address racial inequalities amounts to nothing less than working to maintain the advantages held by affluent white men.

Consider that almost every university harbors numerous systems of preference with regard to admissions, including special considerations for state residents, military veterans, athletes and “legacies”—people like Bush, whose family is of importance to the school. That’s how it is at the University of Michigan, which awards applicants bonus points for belonging to any of the above groups. Yet, none of those preferences is under attack.

Why? They don’t threaten the status quo.

Affirmative action does. By adopting policies that promote a racially diverse student body, schools like Michigan are taking positive steps toward an America in which the next generation of doctors, lawyers and CEOs will include a healthier percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics and women. It goes without saying that we’d like to see the day when equality is achieved and such programs are no longer needed. But we’re not there yet, and that racially neutral society is not going to come about unless we take steps to achieve it.