The United States Supreme Court has handed down its decisions on the issue of affirmative action. In the cases of Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger, the court has ruled on the constitutionality of race-conscious programs and their viability in educational institutions across the country.
The discussion has devolved into accusations of racial and ethnic insensitivity by the advocates of affirmative action against their opponents and countercharges of social engineering by the critics of the University of Michigan's policies.
In this impassioned, but ultimately unsatisfying debate, both the participants and the media which cover them seem preoccupied by the immediate topic at hand, what new form affirmative action will take. Two complex and challenging questions that are deeper and of much greater significance to the issue of African American educational advancement are being ignored:
1. Why do so few African Americans qualify for admission to law schools without affirmative-action programs to grant them access?
2. What are the dynamics that inhibit success more than a quarter-century after affirmative-action programs at colleges and universities nationwide were instituted and the children of those graduates have been applying for admission?
The Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan Law School has brought to light some troubling data that will not be altered one iota by the court's ruling.
If there were no affirmative-action program at the Michigan Law School and admissions were strictly by the numbers (i.e., LSAT scores and grade-point average), the total number of self-identified African Americans in the entire United States who would have qualified for admission in 2002 is 29. That is, 29 out of a pool of nearly 91,000 applicants of all races. The total number of applicants with sufficiently high grade-point averages and LSAT scores for admission was 4,500 (81 percent of these were white, 10 percent Asian).
If admission standards were increased to what is expected of applicants at Yale Law School, an admittedly elite grouping, there would be one black in the entire country that qualified, compared with 636 whites and 83 Asians. These numbers have not changed appreciably over the past decade and a half -- a fact that many affirmative-action programs mask.
As the brief filed by the Law School Admissions Council in the Bollinger cases notes, "Analysis of predicted admissions data for the 1990-91 and 2000-01 applicant pools, under a hypothetical grades-and-scores-only approach, demonstrates the broad effects of racial variances in the numeric criteria. For the 1990-91 applicant pool, as many as 90 percent of black applicants would not have been admitted to any nationally accredited law school in the United States, if grades and test scores were the sole admissions criteria."
Increases have not occurred despite the growth of the black middle class, the significant number of African Americans who benefited from affirmative-action programs over the past 20-plus years in undergraduate and graduate schools and notwithstanding a widespread and sincere interest to bolster the numbers and success of minority students who attend college.
Any explanation that suggests lack of intelligence or ability on racial grounds is manifestly absurd. Likewise, looking to economic factors, which have improved appreciably over the past two decades, as the dominant variables seem insufficient to account for the lack of improvement in achievement.
There are clearly forces at work that are both profound and disturbing. Should we not focus our energies and resources on determining why there is such a disparity in achievement? Ought we not seriously examine why the substantial achievement gap in education persists, despite good intentions on so many fronts and programs that held so much promise of effecting change? Shouldn't we determine if there are impediments to academic success that we just haven't figured out and ought to?
These are the topics that deserve attention, not the continuation of a 30-year-long debate about whether affirmative action is constitutional or not. The fact remains that the underlying problems that prompted affirmative-action programs in the late 1960s remain unsolved -- an achievement gap that is all too wide and must be bridged.
The proponents of affirmative action will be discomfited by the notion that their solution has not provided the answer; active programs of inclusion haven't significantly ameliorated the underlying problems. Conservatives will be uneasy because it is likely that the real solutions are expensive and will require serious and involving government and private programs.
Whichever way the problem is approached, the court's opinions are only the beginning of the real debate.
David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks are, respectively, the president and vice president of Community Advocates, a newly formed human relations-civil rights organization in Los Angeles.