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Leveling the Playing Field, but for Whom?

July 4, 2001

Leveling the Playing Field, but for Whom?


WASHINGTON -- A NEW freshman class is about to enter the University of California, a class in which the percentage of Hispanic students leaped by 18.2 percent and the percentage of Asian-American students rose by 8.7 percent.

Such jumps in campus diversity are generally considered cause for celebration. But in this instance they threaten to reopen the three-decade-old question about the nature and purpose of affirmative action.

The impressive increase among Hispanics and Asian students coincided with a decision by university officials to de-emphasize applicants' scores on the verbal and math SAT-I exam, which tests general verbal and math knowledge and reasoning abilities. Instead, they opted to give more weight to the SAT-II test, which is less culturally inflected, being based on a specific subject like history or biology -- or a foreign language.

Affirmative action can mean giving blacks and other minorities preference in competition for jobs, contracts or admission to colleges. But it can also mean doing what the university did: redesigning criteria to give minorities a better chance.

Many suspect, though no one has solid proof, that the university's new diversity is the result of an unintended opportunity the SAT-II offered. They think that some students who have taken the test in Spanish, or Chinese, or Korean, have scored well because they are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the test language is the one spoken at home. The possibility was reported last week in The Wall Street Journal.

If that is the case, then the new focus on the SAT-II, a policy that results in better chances for other minorities, is doing little or nothing for African-Americans, the group affirmative action was devised for in the first place -- one that has no special language or cultural frame that could be the subject of an entrance exam.

The university says the increased diversity in its freshman class is due to another new policy, one guaranteeing admission for students graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school class. But in the absence of a definitive cause, a range of questions are cropping up.

Some go to the very heart of the concept. Should affirmative action be geared mainly toward a group, like African-Americans, that has a historic grievance of slavery and official segregation? In other words, is it a form of reparations? Or should it promote diversity across the racial and ethnic board, benefiting immigrants, possibly even at the expense of blacks?

"It clearly was meant to be primarily a remedy for centuries of cultural deprivation, denial and exclusion," said Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist. "Diversity was supposed to be a secondary benefit which was tacked on after the program was developed, but which now has become the primary objective."

That can rankle. "I don't like these race-driven policies at all," said Abigail Thernstrom, an author and critic of affirmative action. "But the argument is for some special preferences for African-Americans. After that the argument falls apart."

University of California officials may be entirely correct when they say that the SAT-II exams, especially those testing a person's writing ability and achievement in subjects like foreign languages, yield a better prediction of doing well in college than the SAT-I.

But how does a particular subject become eligible for an SAT-II test? One factor is whether a given subject is taught fairly widely in high schools. But another is a well-organized campaign. In recent years, SAT-II tests in Italian, Chinese, modern Hebrew and Japanese have been created, and SAT-II exams in biology, math and history have been changed, generally as the result of lobbying by interest or ethnic groups.

EVERY single change has come, to a certain extent, as a result of lobbying campaigns," said Gretchen Rigol, vice president for higher education services for the College Board, the company that develops both the SAT-I and the SAT-II exams. Indeed, Korean-Americans recently lobbied the College Board to develop a SAT-II test in Korean. The group also got Samsung, the Korean electronics corporation, to pay $500,000 to the College Board to help develop the exam.

While blacks certainly have the political clout to pressure the College Board to develop a SAT-II test that could help them, what would it be? It couldn't be Swahili or Xhosa or any of the other myriad African languages. It would be hard to find a better example of how slavery, which cut its captives off from their cultural roots, has disadvantaged blacks through generations.

When it comes to putting forward a rationale for affirmative action programs, government agencies, including universities, are limited by legal restrictions. The Supreme Court has looked askance at the idea of programs that may discriminate against whites to make up for past sins, unless those sins are specific to an institution, rather than the society as a whole.

On the other hand, in its 1978 Bakke decision, the high court said a program at the University of California at Davis that granted breaks to minority applicants was justified because it created an eclectic student body. "The atmosphere of speculation, experimentation and creation -- so essential to the quality of higher education -- is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body," Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote.

AS is always the case when it comes to affirmative action, nothing is simple, even the objects of outrage. The University of California's change in policy does in fact result in a more diverse campus, both ethnically and linguistically. What's more, it may benefit a group, Hispanic immigrants, that may not have been the victim of historic oppression but still sees its share of contemporary discrimination.

"If the issue is a remedy, there are two separate grounds -- a remedy for past discrimination and one for ongoing discrimination," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "You can't look at the social science data and make a credible case that Latinos don't suffer from discrimination."

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