Affirmative Action - With Feeling

July 21, 2002

by John K. Bates

An interesting story ran on the front page of the July 13, 2002 edition of the Wall Street Journal; the type of in-depth reporting that time and again proves why that newspaper is America’s finest journalistic institution. Though the actual news is not “new” by any stretch, the story covers a different angle and suggests - while leaving it to the reader to decide for themselves - that perhaps something illegal and sinister is afoot in the liberal higher education establishment in the state of California. It also gives yet another warning to conservatives about the law of unintended consequences and the dangers of political compromise.

The issue is college admissions and how California’s institutions are dealing in the wake of 1996’s Proposition 209, which banned college admission criteria based upon race. To comply with this voter-approved initiative, the state college system must no longer allow less-qualified students to gain admission over their better educated peers simply because they are of a certain race or gender. In theory at least, the law levels the playing field for all people of all colors, races, and genders. If one wants to gain admission to higher education in California, he or she has to show ability, nothing more and nothing less. And that is how it should be.

But an interesting thing has happened as admission directors began to comply with the law. They recognized that what is intended in a law is not always what is enforced, and moreover that there are ways around just about any law. Hence, there is a new admission policy in place: Those who can demonstrate “hardship” or that they have overcome “life’s challenges” are given preference over those who come from what is termed an “easy” background. So the inner-city single mother with an SAT of 1000 goes in ahead of the suburban prom queen with an SAT of 1500; the former gang member with average grades goes before the debate team captain who aced all his AP classes.

There have been two direct consequences of this new policy. The first - no surprise here - is that more minorities are being admitted at the expense of whites and Asians. In other words, “affirmative action” is still alive and well in California despite the express wishes of voters who overwhelmingly declared they wanted otherwise. The bureaucrats and administrators at UCLA, Berkeley and other liberals schools who cringed when Prop 209 passed simply did what liberals have done for years: They found a legalistic loophole in the law, exploited it, and are daring anyone to take them on in the liberal courts where they usually win. If one is looking for a better explanation as to why people sour on political participation, one need not look much further than the UC system.

The second result is more indirect. Since “hardship” is now the currency used to gain admission to college, high school students are learning to whine. (Actually, high school kids already know how to whine. They are now learning to whine better.) Some students are actually being coached - much as kids in my generation were coached to seek career paths that would be fulfilling - to play up every hardship, family conflict, and stubbed toe they have encountered along the way. Suddenly, a fight over the car on Friday night becomes “long-term conflict with parents” and being picked last for dodge ball (oops, they cant play that anymore, maybe being picked last for the Hugging Team) becomes “enduring discrimination of peers.” Failing to get a date is attributed to the ever-popular “dysfunctional family,” while a C in art class, obtained as a result of never attending half of the classes, becomes “school system oppression.”

In today’s hypersensitive society, this is simply icing on the cake. College admission - and especially the hated-in-some-quarters entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT - offered one of the last bastions of genuine competitiveness. It also offered, in theory at least once Prop 209 was passed, an equal comparison. While no one would argue that raw academic potential at a public school in Los Angeles might not be as nurtured as that in Simi Valley, the tests offered a fair way of measurement. And admissions officers have always had discretion in admissions to admit hardship cases. But until now, such discretion was much less detailed and much more subject to review. By institutionalizing hardship and by making it profitable to whine, the university system in California is encouraging such whining and allowing students to make any and every excuse for failure except the one that usually applies - failing to do the work correctly. And this, sadly, is actually worse than the old affirmative action system.

The lesson for conservatives is in this fact. No one would have guessed Prop 209 would have turned out this way, but conservatives should have seen it coming. Long ago, conservatives - in order to appear “sensitive” - compromised the issue of affirmative action and race quotas. Yes, conservatives claim they are against quotas. But they go out of their way to appear “compassionate” and have said that discrimination is acceptable so long as the criteria is along the lines of economic hardship instead of race. In other words, they long ago condoned the feelings-based spoils system now at work in California. It is another lesson of unintended consequences and the danger of compromise. By compromising a fundamental conservative principle - namely, that advancement should always and only be based solely on merit - conservatives have eliminated any authority they have to object to California’s system. The bureaucrats and administrators are simply doing what compromised conservatives have advocated for years. These conservatives now have no room to complain.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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