The Right Coast

April 22, 2005
Sixties Affirmative Action
By Gail Heriot

A friend of mine was wondering recently how universities got started giving racial preferences to middle and upper-middle class minority students (as most beneficiaries of race-based admissions policies are these days). Why had colleges and universities allowed affirmative action to drift away from what she regarded as its original purpose of benefiting the disadvantaged?

Here's one perspective on the sequence of events: After witnessing the 1960s era affirmative action programs that were supposedly designed to benefit only truly disadvantaged minority students, many people, including many conservatives, welcomed the expansion of the programs to include middle and upper-middle class minority students. They figured that at least it couldn't be any worse.

These very early affirmative action programs were ...uh... very 1960s. Many of them sought the recruitment not of blacks generally but of “authentic” blacks (by which university administrators evidently meant not just impoverished youths, but impoverished youths with impressive criminal records). Several universities made it a point to recruit students from urban street gangs.

Take Cornell. In the late 1960s, administrators were not interested in reaching out to black students generally; they wanted instead to concentrate on black students from the most disadvantaged circumstances. And they went further: They made it a practice to reject students from impoverished circumstances precisely because they had excellent academic credentials, perversely viewing such credentials as evidence of privilege. In justifying the rejection of a Black candidate whose parents were laundry workers, a Cornell report stated:

“... her cultural and educational background doesn’t indicate deprivation to the extent necessary for qualification as a disadvantaged ... student. In spite of the fact that both her parents are laundry workers, she has been adequately motivated by them to a point where she has achieved academic success and some degree of cultural sophistication.”

What did Cornell get by employing such a strategy? Not scholarly types, that’s for sure. According to one internal report, the attrition rate was “phenomenal.” “[A]bout half of all students in the program have received at least a warning for poor performance. Several students have received a “warning” and a “final warning” and a “post-final warning.’”

And they weren't exactly happy campers. In the end, what Cornell ended up with was eighty gun-toting members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society forcibly taking over and holding Straight Hall in April of 1969. No, not all of them were these "specially disadvantaged" affirmative action admittees. Some of the leaders were middle class. But it's safe to say that the bulk of the partcipants in the take-over were from the special program. Fortunately, no one was killed at Cornell (unlike UCLA where a gun battle between rival gangs of UCLA students left two dead at Campbell Hall).

All this got people thinking that they needed a Plan B. In Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, Thomas Sowell (who had the misfortune to be teaching at both UCLA and Cornell during the crazy years) argued that the problem with these affirmative action programs was that they had admitted the wrong black students. There were, he argued, black students out there who would do well at Cornell if they were only given the chance. All Cornell had to do is go out and look in the right places, not out in the street.

He was, of course, right. But most of these potentially competitive students were middle class. And there were fewer of them than anyone would like, so if a university wanted a large number of black students, it would have to relax its entrance standards. Unfortunately, after 1969, any kind of affirmative action program that didn't produce Cornell-like results seemed reasonable and moderate. Before long racial preferences for the black middle class became the accepted practice.