Education and Accidents of Birth

Harvard, like most universities, gives alumni children a break in admissions. Some Asian-Americans see this as illegal discrimination, because mostly white "alum-kids" bump Asian-Americans who would otherwise get in.

The Education Department recently ended a probe into this particular thumb on Harvard’s scales, finding it justified by the need to sustain the flow of alumni dollars and volunteer work.

But Asian-Americans aren’t satisfied. And their complaint (which also encompasses preferences for athletes, most of whom are white or black) opens a useful window onto the larger controversy over racial affirmative action.

The most obvious point is that the conservatives who denounce the unfairness of preferences for (mostly non-Asian) minorities are strangely silent about alumni preferences. This lack of symmetry renders their arguments a bit suspect.

If fairness is the end and merit selection the means, then it should be as important to make Harvard and its ilk "alum-blind" as to make them colorblind. Indeed, a strong case for discriminating against alum-kids might be inferred from a 1979 article by that scourge of affirmative action, then Professor Antonin Scalia.

After trashing racial preferences-as an effort to ease the WASP conscience at the expense of those whose immigrant parents (like Scalia’s father) "never profited from the sweat of any black man’s brow"-Scalia appended an intriguing afterthought:

"I do not, on the other hand, oppose-indeed, I strongly favor-what might be called …’affirmative action programs’ of many types of help for the poor and disadvantaged. It may well be that many, or even most, of those benefited … would be members of minority races…. I would not care if all of them were."

Scalia did not develop this point. The late Justice William O. Douglas did, in a 1974 dissent. While condemning racial preferences in law school admissions, Douglas argued for "evaluating an applicant’s achievements in light of the barriers that he had to overcome.

"A black applicant who pulled himself out of a ghetto into a junior college," Douglas continued, "may thereby demonstrate a level of motivation, perseverance and ability that would lead a fair-minded admissions committee to conclude that he shows more promise for law study than the son of a rich alumnus who achieved better grades." Douglas said the "poor Appalachian white" or "second-generation Chinese" should benefit from similar logic.

Conservatives use this opinion as a debating point, stressing that racial affirmative action incongruously favors the affluent black physician’s child over better-qualified whites and Asians from more modest circumstances.

But the Douglas argument cuts even more sharply (in logic, if not in law) against alumni preferences, which add another advantage to applicants drawn from the most privileged slice of American society, and thus amount to a double dose of unmeritocratic discrimination against Scalia’s "poor and disadvantaged."

The SAT scores and other meritocracy points (for proficiency in Russian, drama, the piano, fencing, etc.) in the typical Harvard alum-kid’s résumé have already been skewed upward by the accident of birth that gave her superior schooling and other opportunities. That’s why disproportionate numbers of alum-kids would get into Harvard even in an alum-blind process.

It seems especially hard to justify a preference that means taking a place away from the struggling immigrant’s child whose 1350 SAT spores and straight A’s at public school are remarkable achievements, to give it to the rich alum-kid whose 1300 SAT scores and B-plus average at Andover are merely adequate.

So the argument from fairness and merit suggests that preferences for alum-kids are far more objectionable than those for blacks, many of whom have had to endure discrimination.

This does not necessarily mean alumni preferences amount to illegal discrimination or should be abolished. Nor does it mean racial preferences should be preserved.

Rather, it suggests that both kinds of preferences, and even the meritocratic norm from which both depart, should be assessed less on the basis of fairness than in light of pragmatic concerns: Is the preference designed to serve an important goal? Does it work? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Even if we could rank the relative "merit" of masses of applicants with real precision, which we can’t, the rankings would still be determined largely by te product of each applicant’s genetic inheritance and socioeconomic opportunities-both accidents of birthh.

Is it really "fairness" that ranks an Asian-American whiz kid with extraordinary native intelligence over a poor black kid who is merely gifted? Or that ranks the same black kid, who struggles against the legacy of slavery, over an affluent white kid who struggles against a genetic inability to master algebra? Suppose the white kid is a kinder person?

The most important justification for merit selection is not that it is more fair but that it is more efficient to award the most coveted opportunities to those likely to use them productively.

But other concerns-and above all the goal of increasing social and racial harmony by making our universities a better mirror of our diverse society-argue for making exceptions.

Hence racial preferences. The problem is that they serve these goals crudely, if at all.

The truly disadvantaged, with some exceptions, lack the academic and cultural preparation to do good college-level work. Thus racial preferences benefit mainly the minority of minority-group members who are relatively affluent.

And because of past discrimination, the pool of well-prepared, non-Asian non-whites is dauntingly small. So universities seeking racial proportionality can fill their quotas (call them goals, if you like) only by taking kids with far lower scores, and far less capacity to do well, than their white and Asian classmates.

Hence the staggering dropout rates at some schools-as high as 80 percent for the class entering the University of California at Berkeley in 1982-for those blacks and Hispanics who get in via affirmative action.

All this fuels resentment and self-segregation on campuses. Among many minority students, it fosters an understandable sense of insecurity, triggering a search for excuses (e.g., racist environment), a chorus of denials that conventional measures of academic merit have any validity, an ugly sense (in at least some cases) of moral entitlement to preferences without end-and an urge to stamp out "politically incorrect" speech about all this. There is also a devaluation of the achievements of minorities who could make it without preferences.

Among whites, especially those from modest backgrounds who see themselves or their friends as victims of a system of reverse discrimination set up to benefit less-qualified blacks and Hispanics, there is rising bitterness that sometimes erupts into ugly racist stereotyping.

Alumni preferences serve far less lofty goals. It’s hard to summon much sympathy when Harvard tells the Education Department that "after berating the admissions office for its stupidity, alumni whose children have been rejected may sever all connections with the university."

But alumni preferences serve their modest goals at fairly low cost. Only about 25 of the roughly 150 alum-kids in each year’s class at one rather typical elite university would have been rejected by an alum-blind process, according to a university official. On the other hand, he estimates, well over half of the nearly 300 minority admittees in each entering class would have been rejected by a colorblind process.

Perhaps someday we will achieve a more perfect meritocracy, dispensing with racial, sexual, and alumni preferences and gauging applicants’ true potential by adding scientifically calibrated handicapping points to the raw test scores of those held back by disadvantages of every variety.

Meanwhile, I trust that my own alma mater will little note nor long remember these words, nor throw them back at me when I come calling 11 years hence on behalf of my first child.

And if she also gets a break for being born female, as I did for being born male, I will be grateful indeed. Even for us white males, affirmative action can have its charms. But fairness is not one of them.

Is it a fair admissions policy that ranks a poor black kid, who struggles against the legacy of slavery, over a rich white kid who has a genetic inability to master algebra?