NYT'S Leonhardt Misses The Real UCLA Quotas Story

The most publicized frontline in the fight over the ethnic spoils system (a.k.a., affirmative action, diversity, or multiculturalism) is freshman admissions to the University of California.

Sunday's New York Times Magazine article The New Affirmative Action,  by David Leonhardt, praising the (illegal) push to get more minorities into UCLA is only the latest example (September 30, 2007).

Heck, I've written about this issue more times than I care to remember.

In the early 1970s, the University of California system quietly put in place a quota system for lower IQ minorities. In the 1978 Bakke decision over the UC Davis medical school, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell outlawed "quotas" but permitted "goals". In practice, this merely turned out to require a semantic change.

In 1995, the UC Board of Regents, led by Ward Connerly, abolished racial and ethnic preferences in admissions. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, authored by Thomas Wood and Glynn Custred, which inscribed a general ban on preferences into the state's constitution. UC administrators have met this anti-discrimination law with "massive resistance"—the tactic invented in the South's school desegregation wars fifty years ago. They have been conniving to get around California's constitution ever since.

Why has fighting over who gets a cheap but prestigious college education been so intense in California? It's worth considering in detail because the Golden State is where America's future gets test-driven. The rest of the country can look forward to similar developments very soon.

By 1965, the state of California had built for its best high school graduates eight lovely campuses (most in famously desirable locations such as Santa Barbara and La Jolla), or one for every 2.2 million residents. Since then, however, 20 million more people have crowded into California—but the state has added only one additional UC school, in not-so-lovely Merced in the Central Valley.

California's population growth and its worsening inability to add the infrastructure that the new residents need—whether campuses, freeways, or power plants—are intimately related.

  • First, more people mean higher land prices. So paying for needed property is more expensive than back in the early 1960s.

  • Second, the Not-In-My-Back-Yard movement inevitably gathers political strength as the number of backyards increases.

California has passed famously stringent environmental laws as homeowners try to prevent new developments from overcrowding them. The construction of UC Merced turned into a 17-year-long ordeal stretching from 1988 to the first day of classes in 2005, with the whole campus having to be moved to protect a half-inch long crustacean.

Considering that minorities already make up two-thirds of freshmen at UCLA, you might think the topic of today's NYT essay is moot by this point. That UCLA is enormously diverse, yet still wracked by complaints that it lacks diversity, shows that "diversity" isn't really the issue. Instead, ethnic activists just want to pack more members of their races into each college to display their raw political muscle. Whether this is in the interests of the general public or even of the minority students themselves is irrelevant.

Affirmative action is much like its campus counterpart: football recruiting. They're both close to a zero sum game. UCLA's football team, for example, has scored a coup in getting a letter of commitment from Birmingham High School's star running back Milton Knox. This allows UCLA fans to thump their chests and gesticulate with contempt at Berkeley's fans. But so what? Similarly, Berkeley annually flies up from Los Angeles 500 black and Hispanic high school students, primarily to keep them from going to UCLA.

The vast amount of time and money expended on recruiting high school football players doesn't create much new talent; it just redistributes it among colleges. And the same is true for affirmative action.

The liberal dispensation that has ruled America for over three decades presumes the existence of a white majority that can easily afford to dispense preferences to minorities because the "racial ratio" of payer to payee is high. But when everybody is a minority, the cost of ethnic preferences per disfavored individual becomes unbearable.

One general lesson illustrated by this new NYT article about the effort to pack more blacks into UCLA: nobody in the MainStream Media cares much about the truly big demographic stories, which are driven by immigration.

Indeed, the reason few Americans realize that many immigrants are eligible for affirmative action the moment they get off the planeis that everyone in the media instead wants to argue over quotas for African-Americans for the one-millionth time.

Yet immigrant groups eligible for affirmative action are the fastest growing—and thus the most destabilizing.

Granted, some of the more famous blacks of the post-War era had attended UCLA, such as Jackie Robinson, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, decathlete Rafer Johnson, and basketball player Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

To be frank, though, in California, African-Americans are yesterday's news. Blacks are now down to only 6.7 percent of the population of California, while Hispanics are 35.2 percent and Asians are 12.2 percent. However, the press just isn't all that interested in brown and yellow people. It still sees everything in black and white.

Leonhardt's NYT piece begins with the typical human interest profile of a black student who is assume to deserve to displace somebody else because she's, well, black:

"In another time, it wouldn't have been too hard to guess where Frances Harris would have ended up going to college. She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. ... She decided her dream college was the University of California, Los Angeles."

Of course, the writer never interviews the unknown 18-year-old who would be at UCLA if Ms. Harris hadn't been granted a sub rosa racial preference. Although UC admissions are a zero sum game, the reporter doesn't actually know the name of the young person who was cheated out of admission. So, to the New York Times, he or she is literally an "Invisible Victim" – to adapt the title of Fred Lynch's book about the impact of affirmative action on whites.

Ms. Harris had an A-minus average. Which sounds very good - but 87% of UCLA's accepted applicants have straight A GPAs of 4.0 or higher.

She scored a 22 on the ACT, which is roughly the equivalent of a 1030 or 1040 on the SAT (Math plus Verbal, but not counting the new Writing test). For us oldsters, that's like a 930 on the SAT before they made the scoring easier in 1995. The mean accepted applicant at UCLA scored a 1341 on the SAT. Only 5.5 percent of all UCLA admits scored below 22 on the ACT, so Miss Harris must rank at about the 10th percentile.

There's no evidence that SAT or ACT scores under predict performance. Indeed, it's been shown that black and Hispanic college students get even worse grades than their low average test scores would predict.

In other words, Miss Harris might well wind up in over her head at UCLA, which is a gigantic, bureaucratic, unsupportive megacampus with huge lecture halls full of bright, highly competitive workaholics. (And this is a loyal alumnus of UCLA speaking!)

Leonhardt never explains in his article why UCLA would be the ideal college for Miss Harris, other than noting that UCLA has a beautiful campus. Having earned an MBA at UCLA many years ago, I can confirm that. But I can also confirm that beautiful campuses are a dime a dozen these days—America is currently spending vast amounts on academic architecture and landscaping.

The NYT reports that after "a six-week voluntary summer school that is officially open to incoming freshmen of all races but is dominated by black and Latino students …she's thinking about becoming a pre-med student". But once UCLA's real school year starts tomorrow, she is likely to find the competition from Asian pre-meds crushing.

Before Proposition 209, the black dropout rate at the top UC schools was about double the white and Asian rates. The NYT essay celebrates a new ploy by UCLA to get back to those good old days:

"In the past, the admissions office divided every application between two readers: one evaluated a student's academic record, the other looked at extracurricular activities and 'life challenges.' Berkeley, by contrast, had taken a more holistic approach, with a single reader judging an entire application, and Berkeley was attracting more black students than U.C.L.A. Why? Maybe the holistic approach takes better account of the subtle obstacles that black students face — or maybe the readers, when looking at a full application, ended up practicing a little under-the-table affirmative action.

"Last fall, U.C.L.A. made the switch. … In all, about 200 African-American freshmen started classes last week, double the number the year before... The big question that hangs over U.C.L.A.'s success, of course, is whether the university broke the law."

As the Daily Bruin reported:

"In fall 2006, before UCLA switched to holistic admissions, black and Latino applicants' average SAT scores were 255 and 246 points lower than the average for their white and Asian counterparts. … In fall 2007, black applicants' SAT scores were on average 293 points lower than those of white and Asian students, and Latino applicants' scores came up 249 points short." [Score gaps stir dispute over holistic approach, By Julia Erlandson,  May 2, 2007]

Leonhardt does make one good point:

"There is almost an iron law of higher education: the more selective a school is, the fewer low-income students it has. … There are really only two exceptions to the rule, two universities that are both elite and economically diverse: U.C.L.A. and Berkeley. …

Of course, those are the two elite colleges that are legally banned from using ethnic preferences! This demonstrates that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are almost all middle class or higher. (Miss Harris, for example, comes from a two-parent home.)

Leonhardt explains:

"The University of California accepts far more transfer students, mainly from community colleges, than most colleges. At U.C.L.A., about one-third of the admitted students arrive as transfers instead of as freshmen."

Unfortunately, Leonhardt doesn't realize that this renders his article about freshman admissions at UCLA close to pointless. All these struggles over who gets admitted as a freshman to UCLA are peculiarly phony because the school flunks out many freshmen and sophomores and replaces them with transfers from community colleges.

It makes no sense at all to have an affirmative action policy of admitting a black kid with an SAT score in the bottom decile just to boost the "diversity" of the freshman class, and then burning her out and flunking her, replacing her with a community college grad with an even lower SAT score who winds up getting the UCLA degree instead of the smarter black.

But when it comes to blacks and affirmative action, emotion obliterates logic.

So, let me propose a Grand Bargain, a Comprehensive Affirmative Action Reform to at least stabilize the scale of the problem: We permanently authorize racial quotas for African-Americans in return for permanently banning preferences for any other ethnic group. 

Unlike a certain other Comprehensive "Grand Bargain" in the news earlier this year, that would be a reasonable compromise.

So don't expect anyone to pay any attention to it.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]