The race for admissions

    It’s easy to be encouraged by the University of California’s 2003-04 freshman admit data if you believe, as many do, in the oft-championed value of an ethnically diverse university. That the admitted class has the highest proportion of underrepresented minorities in years — higher, in fact, than were admitted in 1997, the last year affirmative action was in place — is heartening to those who believe that a well-rounded education is complemented by exposure to people from as many racial and ethnic backgrounds as possible.

    Kenrick Leung
    Guardian

    Indeed, breaking down racial and ethnic stereotypes is something we should all encourage, and a diverse student body is one way to promote this. However, some university administrators and activists are overly focused on the goal of increasing diversity and have lost sight of the real charge set before them: making sure that all Californians who are qualified for a UC education can get one, taking into account whatever barriers are between them and their goals. What is being ignored is that it’s class, not race, that serves as the main barrier to higher education.

    Race has long been one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics — powerful in its ability to alternately unite and divide groups of Americans. Countless political personalities make their name known by trading on race, and they have a clear stake in keeping their pet issue at the forefront of public thought. On the other hand, socioeconomic and class issues are decidedly less sexy than race and ethnicity, and much more complicated to explain and understand. Class consciousness is low in the United States, and individuals are much more likely to identify as black, Latino, or Asian than they are upper-lower-class or lower-middle-class, making race a much better issue with which to mobilize voters.

    But it’s income and social standing that determine where a family lives and thus what schools their children will attend — and it’s hard to argue that it’s the quality of one’s K-12 education that determines the likelihood of attending college. High schools in low-income areas are dramatically less likely to offer advanced placement courses, a key factor in competitive university admissions. Students who have to work during high school have less time to study than their more well-off counterparts, and don’t have opportunities to pursue application-padding extracurricular activities.

    It’s true that Californians on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are disproportionately minorities: About 22 percent each of American Indians, blacks and Latinos live below the poverty line; about 13 percent of Asians do; and about 8 percent of whites do. However, this association does not necessarily show causation. Few would argue that some inborn quality in nonwhite racial and ethnic groups destines them to poverty, and institutional racism has largely disappeared over the last forty years. The simple truth is that those who are born into socioeconomic disadvantage are extremely likely to stay in it, regardless of their skin color — unless their hurdles are understood, accounted for and correctly targeted for correction.

    An interesting situation with regard to race, class and education is emerging in California’s demographic. Currently, non-Latino whites hold a shrinking plurality in California’s population at 46.7 percent, with Latinos’ share having grown to 32.4 percent in the 2000 census. In fact, Californians of Hispanic or Latino descent are predicted to outnumber non-Latino whites by 2015. When that happens, Latinos will no longer be a minority — but will almost certainly still have hurdles to overcome, such as frequently speaking English as a second language, generally working lower-paying jobs, and living in neighborhoods with underperforming schools. In such a case, it will become clear that it is not Latinos’ status as an ethnic minority that is to blame for the group’s underrepresentation in higher education, but rather the social and economic conditions that are common in that community. The difference is crucial in understanding the issue of improving educational accessibility to California students.

    Referring to certain groups as “”underrepresented”” implies that there exists a certain level of acceptable representation, and the current numbers fall short of that — and furthermore, that acceptable level of representation lying in the administrators’ minds is tantamount to an abstract sort of quota. While such a quasi-quota is not considered technically unconstitutional, it is certainly contrary to the spirit of the law if not the letter.

    The business of the university should not be meeting quotas, be they rigid or nebulous, but instead provide the best possible education to the most qualified students. Sometimes the most qualified students don’t sport 4.3 GPAs or 1500 SAT scores, but do display hard work, commitment and talent by having overcome educational disadvantages and societal barriers; and admissions programs that recognize this, such as comprehensive review, are good ones. But until we divest ourselves of the notion that race is the barrier with which we must chiefly concern ourselves, we will continue to sell California’s students and California’s future, short.

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