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In pursuit of equality


Justice demands end to racial double standards




July 13, 2006


Fifty years ago, it was common for American universities to require applicants to submit a photograph with their admissions materials. This practice allowed some universities to engage in racial profiling, denying admission to qualified black applicants to maintain predominantly white student bodies.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color or national origin, and effectively ended the practice of racial double standards in college admissions. Universities started practicing race-neutral admissions.


But racial discrimination in college admissions resurfaced in the 1970s under the name "affirmative action." The old practice of submitting photographs was replaced with the new practice of checking boxes on the college application that identified a student's race and ethnicity, which entitled some students to preferential treatment.


In what will shape the future of college admission policies in Michigan, voters will decide in November whether universities that accept public funds can continue their current admissions practices of double standards and racial preferences.


To understand why it's time to end racial preferences in higher education, consider the following scenario.


A university professor walks into class at the beginning of the semester. After a review of required texts, assignments and examinations, the professor discusses grading. The professor explains that there is a new university policy that applies a double standard for grading and is an extension of the university's race-based admissions policies.


A standard grading scale will apply to all white, Asian and Arab students. African-American and Hispanic students will automatically receive extra points for all assignments and will receive a final letter grade based on a preferential grading scale.


Most people would find this a blatant form of discrimination.


First, the students receiving academic favoritism might justifiably object that they are being stereotyped as a homogeneous group. It would be offensive to many of those students to assume automatically that they all need preferential academic treatment.


Second, this form of academic profiling creates a disincentive for black and Hispanic students to study as hard as they would otherwise. Moreover, these students could face a special-preference stigma when they enter the job market or apply to graduate school. Their academic credentials could justifiably be questioned.


Moreover, these students could face a special-preference stigma when they enter the job market or apply to graduate school.  If a student graduates from college with a 3.5 grade point average, a prospective employer or graduate program would justifiably question the academic credentials and potential abilities of those students who received race-based adjustments in all of their undergraduate course work.


Finally, most everyone would object to the fundamental unfairness of giving preferential treatment to certain groups of students. The students who didn't receive special grading preferences would rightfully feel they were being treated unfairly and being discriminated against. Why should an Arab or Asian student with an 85% score in an accounting class get a letter grade of B if a black or Hispanic student with the same percentage gets an A?


These and many other reasons explain why the only acceptable practice in the classroom is the equal treatment of all students as individuals, without regard to race, sex, ethnicity or religion.


And yet the hypothetical classroom-based discrimination is exactly the type of admission-based discrimination that prevails at some public universities in Michigan. And it is the obvious objections to academic favoritism in the classroom that explain why racial favoritism in college admissions is being legally challenged.


Students are already treated as individuals without regard to race by university professors once they enter college. Treating all students as individuals when they first apply to college will ultimately move us further along toward the ideal of a colorblind society than maintaining the current admissions practices of double standards, special preferences and racial discrimination.


President John F. Kennedy said: "Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races and national origins contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial discrimination." Hopefully, Kennedy's vision will prevail this fall when Michigan voters have an opportunity to end state-sponsored racial discrimination in college admissions at Michigan public universities.


MARK J. PERRY is a professor of economics and finance at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit 48226 or oped@freepress.com.


Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.