- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007


By Peter Schmidt

Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 225 pages


It’s now been four years since the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, declared affirmative action constitutional. Since the decision, the debate has subsided somewhat. But fundamental questions remain about whether or not affirmative action is a good idea.

In “Color and Money,” Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports on the continuing controversy about affirmative action in colleges and universities.

Mr. Schmidt admits that his newspaper was not an unbiased observer in the conflict. When the Supreme Court’s decision upholding affirmative action was announced, Mr. Schmidt writes, he “half expected to hear popping champagne corks” in the office “and a marching band triumphantly playing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ on its way to the Lincoln Memorial.”

Mr. Schmidt’s book, however, is fair, balanced and judicious. Foes of affirmative action will learn a great deal from Mr. Schmidt’s reporting.

Affirmative action, Mr. Schmidt says, occupies a high proportion of college budgets. Universities are of course coy about how much they spend on such policies. But Mr. Schmidt reports that the Independence Institute, through a lawsuit, forced the University of Colorado at Boulder to reveal earlier this year that it spent $21 million each year on affirmative action. If a mid-sized state university spends that much on affirmative action, richer schools must spend far more.

But all this spending allows schools to subsidize unqualified minority applicants who struggle and drop out. Mr. Schmidt describes research by Richard Sander of the UCLA law school, who charges that “the annual production of new black lawyers would probably increase if racial preferences are abolished tomorrow.”

According to Mr. Sander, so many unqualified black students are accepted at top law schools that black students are more than twice as likely as white students to drop out, four times as likely to flunk the bar exam on their first try, and six times as likely never to pass the bar exam. Without affirmative action, Mr. Sander argues, black students would enter second- and third-tier schools and do better than they do struggling at Harvard or Yale.

No university, of course, wants to admit students who aren’t going to do well. So they pad their enrollments by admitting students whose minority credentials are dubious.

“Many colleges, eager to be able to boast of large Hispanic enrollments, apply the Hispanic label to anyone who wants to claim it,” Schmidt writes. The doors at Ivy League schools, for example, open very wide for graduates of Puerto Rico’s tough private academies.

In addition, Africans and Caribbean blacks are overrepresented in American universities, because many of them have graduated from school systems with high standards (Trinidad and Tobago’s schools, according to Mr. Schmidt, are particularly good). A team of researchers led by Charles Massey found that 41 percent of the black students admitted to Columbia, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale in 1999 were “either immigrants or immigrants’ children.” By contrast, only 3 percent of the black population is made up of immigrants.

Mr. Schmidt is also good in describing social science research on affirmative action. He demonstrates that there is no research showing that affirmative action spending makes campuses more diverse. Most of the research showing affirmative action benefits, he reveals, are biased and therefore not useful.

The one important omission from Mr. Schmidt’s book concerns foundations. He reports that the conservative groups that fought affirmative action “derived much of their financial support from the same few sources, including the right-leaning John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife foundations.”

But he ignores the fact that the Ford Foundation pumped at least $5 million into defending affirmative action, including several grants to the University of Michigan that paid for legal experts to network and discuss strategy. Ford’s grants paid off in a Supreme Court victory. Yet Mr. Schmidt does not mention the Ford Foundation in his book.

Mr. Schmidt supports affirmative action. But he is honest enough to recognize that as practiced, it’s a severely flawed policy that rewards the rich and the connected and punishes low-income families. Anyone interested in the debate will find “Color and Money” well worth reading.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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