Racial Discrimination in Our Universities and the Supremes

By Dr. Harold A. Black



The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments in a case about racial preferences. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (where I once was a faculty member) are accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. The students lost in a lower court but their appeal is going to be heard by the Supreme Court. That the students lost was a surprise and the reasoning of the lower court was a bit bizarre. Data had shown – with no argument from the defendants – that a black applicant in the lowest quartile had a statistically better chance of admission to Harvard than an Asian applicant in the highest quartile. Clearly the Asian applicant was subject to discrimination. The court agreed but yet still ruled in case of Harvard. The Supreme Court had ruled previously in 2003 in Grutter versus Bollinger that schools could use race on a limited and temporary basis as one consideration for admission. The same is true in a ruling in 2013 permitting the University of Texas to reject white applicants in favor of blacks. In the Harvard case, the university argued that Asians consistently scored lower on “personal quality” ratings – a subjective evaluation. It is amazing that the court considered this argument as persuasive. The court concluded that the plaintiffs could not prove that the evaluation results were due to racism. It seems to me that the burden of proof should have been on the university. It is akin to rejecting a black applicant due to the biases of the evaluator. No wonder the Supreme Court is hearing the case on appeal.

Harvard is quite experienced in this area. In the early 1900s, it discriminated against Jews as the percentage of Jewish students rose significantly from 7 percent in 1900 to 27% in 1925. Adopting similar criteria as today’s Harvard, Jewish enrollment fell by half by 1935. As we fast forward, colleges who wished to diversify the racial composition of their student body found that reliance on standardized test scores for admission disadvantaged black and Hispanic applicants. The same was true for GPAs as a criterion for admission to elite public high schools. Thus, school systems in Fairfax County, Virginia, San Francisco and New York changed their admissions criteria that resulted in a diminution of Asian enrollment and an increase in black and Hispanic students. Again the courts will have to decide the appropriateness of such policies.

It is not surprising that the education establishment has come down almost 100 percent behind the continuation of race based admissions. In the briefs filed in the court, not one university supported the position of the Asian students. These schools contend that without race based preferences they would be unable to obtain their desired racial mix. Indeed, most schools contend that being racially blind would reduce their populations of blacks and Hispanics by half. But could admission actually help or harm these students? Evidence suggests that the admission of lower qualified blacks and Hispanics is harmful to those admitted. These critics point to higher dropout rates and lower GPAs than these students would have achieved at a lesser university. I am of a different view. Many of my black students during my university years were first generation college students and just wanted a chance to succeed at a more rigorous institution. Many of them excelled while many did not. One of my doctoral students was admitted with the lowest GPA and test scores in his class. After struggling the first year, he excelled and received his Ph.D. prompting one professor to admit he was wrong to base admissions solely on test scores. My suggestion harks back to a different era. When I was in high school in the late 1950s, HBCUs offered an on campus one year pre-college program to smart black students with low test scores from the all black secondary schools in the segregated south. That pre-college program was intensive instruction in math, English and the basic sciences. At the successful completion of the program, the students were admitted to the freshman class. One of those students I know went on to earn a Ph.D. In physics from Cal Tech – the genius school. So why not have the elite universities devote a small portion of their considerable endowments to replicate the one year pre-college curriculum of the HBCUs? That way there would be no need for continuing ironic discrimination against Asian Americans in order to achieve “diversity” at their expense.