Affirmative Action at Berkeley

We continue the debate on affirmative action in response to Karen

Paget's "Diversity at Berkeley: Demogoguery or Demography" (TAP,

Spring 1992) and Paul Starr's "Civil Reconstruction: What to Do Without

Affirmative Action" (TAP, Winter 1992)


The University of California at Berkeley is one of

the most selective large public universities in the country. This is true

whether one measures selectivity by the average quality of the student body or

by the proportion of applicants admitted.

In recent years, UC Berkeley has also become a symbol of the nation's supposed

future, as less than one-half the freshmen admitted each year, for the last

several years, have been non-Hispanic white. The media has attributed this

phenomenon to changing demographics. However, simple population dynamics fail to

explain most of the enrollment statistics. Most of the change is attributable to

affirmative action policies designed to be inclusive of members of groups who

would otherwise be grossly underrepresented in a demographic sense and, in fact,

were until recently.

Karen Paget, in her article "Diversity at Berkeley: Demagoguery or

Demography?" (TAP, Spring 1992) gleefully describes the effects of

this policy in limiting white enrollment at Berkeley. Her defense of Berkeley's

affirmative action begins with the observation that California's demographics

are changing. In the future, according to Paget, no ethnic or racial group will

represent a numerical majority. So the 1988 entering freshmen class that had no

ethnic majority was, I guess, "progressive" in spite of the fact that

the demographics had not yet reached the desired point.

Paget goes on to knock down the straw man of nonqualification. She contends

that there is a "common misperception" that most minority students do

not meet the published criteria. Most of us are not college admissions

specialists. This is a somewhat technical and arcane field, and writers like

Paget don't do much to illuminate the territory. I submit that "most of us"

believe that black applicants are held to lower standards than white applicants

and that this difference is often substantial. Yet, Paget purposefully

understates the black advantage in admission in observing that "if two

hypothetical students, one black and one white, have, say, 3.6 grade point

averages and SAT scores of 1100, the black student would have a better chance of

admission to the Berkeley campus." This is grossly misleading.

The truth is: the black student, in the top 2 percent of black students, is

almost certain to gain admission. The white student, in the top 20 percent of

the white universe, is unlikely to earn admission. This is so because of the

racial quota system being used by Berkeley. (I use "quota" here

advisedly. In recent years the term has become misleading shorthand for a system

that gives preference to minorities over whites. Usually, the system is not,

strictly speaking, a quota. In the case of Berkeley and UCLA, however, the

admissions process operates so as to attain a specified percentage of black and

Hispanic enrollment.)

The Berkeley campus has been trying to achieve proportional enrollment since

the early 1980s. First, it set out to ensure that the "underrepresented"

groups such as blacks and Chicanos were proportionately admitted. However, this

caused an apparent anomaly: Because Asian-American youngsters outcompete whites,

white enrollment was "too low." The solution was to quota in whites

relative to Asians. Of course it soon became apparent to some groups of Asians

that it was more difficult for their students to be admitted than it was for

whites. They raised a fuss, and whites became truly residual.

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Now it is truly a disadvantage to be a non-Hispanic white in California if one

wants to be admitted to Berkeley or UCLA (the other UC campuses do not have the

same pattern of enrollment by ethnic group as the two leaders). Paget papers

this over with appeals to merit (aren't you whites embarrassed, you can't beat

Asians?) and diversity. It does boggle the mind that it is important to have

blacks and Chicanos proportionately represented but not whites. But as my table

"Ethnicity and Admissions at Berkeley (1988-89)" shows, if you are a

black high school graduate in California who attains the minimum necessary high

school GPA, you have a 70 percent chance of being admitted to Berkeley. If you

are white, your odds are 9 percent.

What aggravates this situation is that even within that universe of the

qualified, the white applicants have higher average academic indices than do the

blacks or Hispanics. This is bit of reality that Paget ignores. She explains

that the demographic dynamic continues to move against white enrollment: "Caucasian

graduates are declining both absolutely...and in the numbers who apply to the

university." She, of course fails, to draw the obvious inference that,

given the now very low probability of admissions success at Berkeley, white

students are giving up applying.

In the middle of the table is a derivation of the proportion of eligible

students in California by ethnicity. This is the actual universe from which

admissions decisions are made, not the total of high school graduates. If

students were selected according to their place on the eligible list, only 2.5

percent of the Cal students would be black, while almost 70 percent would be

white. Now it is the case that in the universe of acceptable students, Asians

are probably the highest ranking, followed by, in order, whites, Chicanos, and

blacks. If the admission decisions were made purely on merit, Asians would be

slightly more overrepresented than they already are, whites would be slightly

overrepresented, and Chicanos and blacks would be grossly underrepresented. If

this represents relative academic merit, what's wrong with it? It would be no

more demographically unrepresentative than the current setup. We would simply

underrepresent Chicanos and blacks instead of whites and end up with a higher

quality student body.

Paget also observes that if Berkeley was to admit purely by merit, the student

body would be in the top 3 percent or 4 percent of California's high school

students and mostly white and Asian. As she explains, roughly half of Berkeley's

students are selected purely by merit. I can deduce, then, that these students

represent the top 1 percent or 2 percent of California high school graduates. As

about 75 percent of Berkeley students are white or Asian, I conclude that this

part of the student body represents the top 3 percent or so of California

students. The rest are somewhere in the bottom of the remaining 9.5 percent.

In SAT terms, this means students with SAT scores over 1350 are being mixed

with those who scores 1150; and the 1350s outnumber the 1150s. No wonder so many

more of the black students are flunking calculus compared to the

Chinese-American youngsters. As long as the class continues to be geared toward

the higher achieving group, the success dichotomy will continue. Andrew Hacker

observed in Two Nations, "It remains to be seen how Berkeley's new

student body will function in practice. In introductory courses, on one side of

the room will be Asians admitted on the academic track. Across from them will be

blacks and Hispanics with classroom skills at a rather lower level. It is almost

as if two dissimilar colleges were sharing the same campus."

Paget rejects the idea of making admissions on merit alone. "What must one

believe to adopt an admissions policy based on numbers alone? One must believe

that what tests measure as intelligence is valid and reliable, that grades are

objective measures, that both tests and grades predict academic success...and

that in some past golden age, universities admitted in accordance with some

objective standard on intellectual merit." No, I don't have to believe all

that; I do, however, believe that grades and tests (considered together) predict

academic success, and thus that "admissions by the numbers" is

eminently defensible. The graduation success statistics support this opinion.

Finally, what does some golden age have to do with it?

When we get right down to it, the affirmative action admissions policy fails

the test implied by Paget herself. Do the tests and grades predict academic

success? They do. And the policy of admitting by ethnicity fails it.

Thirty-seven percent of black students at Berkeley graduate in five years, while

71 percent of white students graduate. Comparing these results with graduation

rates at Berkeley for whites 20 years ago or comparing Berkeley with the entire

universe of colleges is illegitimate.

In summary, this defense of an outrageous affirmative action program is awful.

Paget attempts to justify grossly unequal treatment of individual students

simply because of their race.


I wrote the article on Berkeley's admissions

policies with the following goals in mind: 1) to describe factually the

situation at one elite research university that mirrors the future demographics

of California, a state where no single racial or ethnic group constitutes a

majority; 2) to broadcast the essential fact that contrary to the perception of

students and the general public alike, most admitted students are drawn from the

eligibility pool--the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates; 3) to

differentiate policies aimed at enhancing diversity from those more commonly

understood as governing affirmative action.

On one fundamental point, Lewis Jones and I agree. If statistical precision

(meaning test scores and grade point average) were the only criterion for

admission, the University of California would be mostly white and Asian. Its

student body would represent the top 4 percent of high school graduates rather

than the top 12.5 percent as required by the state. We disagree, however, over

the desirability of restricting access to UC to such a narrow slice of

graduates, on the meaning and significance of numerical measures, and on the

facts of Berkeley's admissions policy.

Demographics are crucial. When UC could accept all eligible high school

graduates, none of the current admissions controversies existed. As my article

pointed out, historically, admissions policies (with the one exception of

Georgia State) were never constructed on a strictly statistical basis. Entering

classes were selected with many criteria in mind, including the creation of a

geographic mix. That is one reason to put such measures as college graduation

rates (retention rates) in a more historical context. When white students took

more than four or even five years to graduate from college, no one challenged

their ability or their right to a slot.

The explosion of college-bound graduates, which is quickly outstripping UC's

commitment to admit all eligible students (just not their choice of campus), is

magnifying the often minute differences among these UC-eligible students. UC is

not rejecting "merit," as Jones asserts, but the belief that parsing

people into the most precise statistical measure is an accurate determination of

merit and that access to UC should be made on that basis alone. An unfortunate

consequence of these new admission pressures and the equation of merit with

statistical precision has been the common but erroneous assumption that minority

students have been admitted from "below the line" or outside the

eligibility pool.

For those who believe, like Jones, that merit is obvious and there is nothing

wrong with restricting access to the top 3 percent or 4 percent of college

graduates--the obvious implication of Jones's argument, no amount of statistical

data will convince. But for the record, his statistics are not reliable (see

Jerome Karabel's chart "A Second Look"). Studies have proven wrong,

for example, Jones's assumption that minority retention rates are low (they are

indeed lower than white rates) because they can't hack it. The reasons are many

and varied, as likely the result of personal or family financial problems.

Retention rates do not account for those who return and graduate. If a six-year

rather than five-year retention rate is calculated for blacks, the figure rises

to 51 percent (based on 1983 data).

Finally, Jones conflates two issues that I tried to tease apart. It is true

that Berkeley officials might be concerned about the underrepresentation of

whites at the campus, and that is precisely why the rubric of affirmative

action--whether you are for it or against it--is inadequate to describe the

complexity of these admissions policies.


Lewis Jones's critique of Karen Paget's insightful

and sympathetic account of "Diversity at Berkeley" is representative

of a growing body of thought hostile to both the theory and the practice of

affirmative action. Like much of this literature, Jones's assault on affirmative

action is distressingly sloppy about matters of fact--a not uncommon irony in

the writings of those ostensibly committed to the highest standards of

intellectual rigor. Nevertheless, Jones raises some fundamental issues about the

justice and efficacy of affirmative action. After identifying several of the

specific errors that mar his analysis of Berkeley, I will address these broader

issues concerning affirmative action.

Jones refers to "the racial quota system being used by Berkeley,"

specifically claiming that "the admissions process operates so as to attain

a specific percentage of black and Hispanic students." Yet the fact is that

Berkeley does not have--and never has had--a quota for any racial or ethnic

group. The figures for blacks, the principal target of Jones's ire, suffice to

settle this matter: between 1985 and 1990, the number of African-American

admits to Berkeley varied from a low of 448 in 1985 to a high of 916 in 1987,

with 681, 845, 831, and 645 admitted in 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1990,

respectively. If this is a quota, it is a very fluid one indeed.

Jones also errs in his presentation of statistics on ethnic and racial

differences in rates of admission to Berkeley. For example, in his table on

ethnicity and admissions at Berkeley, he reports that only 8.9 percent of white

applicants were admitted; the correct figure, however, is 28 percent--over three

times higher than Jones's figure (see my table "A Second Look at Berkeley.")

Jones fails to make a distinction between the proportion of applicants

admitted to Berkeley (34.5 percent for the fall of 1988) and the proportion of

applicants who register at Berkeley (15.7 percent). This failure to distinguish

between the admissions rate, which is within the control of the institution, and

what is commonly referred to as the "yield rate" (the ratio of

registrants to admits), which is a matter of the choices of individuals, does

not inspire confidence about either Jones's grasp of the admissions process or

his empirical claims.

Despite these errors, Jones is nonetheless correct in claiming that Berkeley

gives preference to black and Hispanic applicants. That Berkeley and other

institutions practicing affirmative action also give preference to many other

categories of applicants--in Berkeley's case, older students, the disabled,

athletes, rural students, students with "special talent," and the

socioeconomically disadvantaged--somehow escapes his attention. Jones'

singleminded focus on preferences given to historically underrepresented

minority groups is hardly unique. Indeed, the Office for Civil Rights of the

U.S. Department of Education ruled in 1990, after a two-year investigation, that

Harvard University's policy of giving significant preference to the children of

alumni was "legitimate" and "legally permissible," even

though its impact was to reduce the percentage of Asian-American students in the

freshman class. The number of beneficiaries of Harvard's policy was large; had

alumni children been admitted at the same rate as other applicants, their number

in the freshman class would have dropped by nearly 200--a figure that surpasses

the total number of black, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and Native-American

registrants combined. America in 1992 has thus arrived at a peculiar juncture in

its tangled history of race relations: while affirmative action programs for

subordinate racial minorities are increasingly subject to the kind of bitter

assault leveled by Jones, affirmative action for the privileged is now

apparently not only permissible but officially sanctioned by the federal


What kinds of students are in fact admitted to Berkeley under what Jones calls "an

outrageous affirmative action program?" The first thing that needs to be

emphasized is that more than 85 percent of registrants from historically

underrepresented minority groups ( blacks, Hispanics, and Native-Americans) are

fully qualified under the University of California's stringent admissions

criteria. These standards require that eligible students be in the top

one-eighth of their graduating high school class--a level reached by under 10

percent of the age group, given California's high school dropout rate of roughly

one-third. Such standards are exceptionally high for a public university and

make the University of California one of the most selective state universities.

In 1991, the average GPAs and SATs of freshmen from historically

underrepresented minority groups were 3.44 and 1016, respectively. These

students tend to come from less advantaged segments of the class structure than

their counterparts from other racial and ethnic backgrounds; the median family

income in 1991 was $35,000 for blacks and $36,300 for Hispanics compared with

$47,400 for Asians and $75,000 for whites. The lower graduation rates for blacks

and Hispanics--which look significantly better after six rather than five years

(see my table)--are no doubt attributable in part to their comparative lack of

financial resources.

While the majority of Berkeley's black and Hispanic students have met the

University of California's eligibility standards and hence are fully qualified,

Jones is correct in stating that many of them would not be competitive if

admissions were determined solely by grades and test scores. Yet no major

college or university in the nation admits its freshman class this way, and

Berkeley is already very far towards the purely academic end of the spectrum in

allocating 50 percent of its available slots solely on the basis of grades and

test scores. (Harvard, in contrast, selects fewer than 10 percent of its admits

on this basis.)

Jones is aware that total reliance on grades and test scores would lead to a

drastic reduction in black and Chicano enrollments, but he is untroubled. "If

this represents relative academic merit," he asks, "what's wrong with

it?" But whether such an outcome would in fact reflect genuine academic

merit is precisely the question. In the face of a formidable body of empirical

evidence documenting the relatively modest predictive power of high school

grades and especially the SAT (see, for example, James Crouse and Dale

Trusheim's book, The Case Against the SAT ), Jones continues to believe

that the identification of "merit" in a heterogeneous society is a cut

and dried affair rather than a matter that calls for--as the best admissions

officers well know--high levels of flexibility and humility. Yet does Jones

truly believe that the 33 percent of California's population that is Hispanic

and black is so lacking in academic talent and potential that it should occupy

fewer than 5 percent of the places in the freshman class of the state's flagship

public university? If so, then the rigid and mechanistic admissions criteria he

favors have an inexorable logic to them.

To be sure, Jones does identify some anomalies in Berkeley's affirmative action

policy. Amidst all the concern about enrolling black and Latino students in

rough proportion to their percentage of the population, for example, there has

been little discussion about the growing underrepresentation of whites. In the

fall of 1991, the proportion of whites in the freshman class reached a historic

low of 30 percent, though Caucasians still comprised 52 percent of California

high school graduates. Because of the relatively close link between social

class and academic achievement among whites, the Caucasian students who are not

only eligible for admission to Berkeley but also competitive for one of the

slots allocated strictly on the basis of grades and test scores tend (in

contrast to the Asian students) to come largely from affluent backgrounds. Thus

the mean family income of white students in 1991 was more than $85,000, with

29.3 percent over $100,000 and only 18.1 percent under $40,000. And even a new

policy that gives preference to UC-eligible students from socioeconomically

disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race, has failed to increase

significantly the number of students from California's large population of

working-class and poor Caucasians.

While Berkeley's affirmative action policy has undeniably produced some genuine

political and moral dilemmas, Jones's critique ultimately falls short because of

its fundamentally ahistorical character. To understand why race-based programs

in education and employment were necessary (and remain so), it suffices to

review briefly the system of racial domination that prevailed prior to the

advent of affirmative action in 1965.

Though Lacking formally exclusionary policies,

America's leading universities in the early 1960s were in reality

quasi-segregated institutions. While no precise figures are available, Berkeley

itself--the very symbol of 1960s liberalism (and of radicalism)--enrolled a

student body at the time of the free speech movement in 1964 that was well under

5 percent black and Hispanic. The situation at the leading Ivy League colleges

more closely approximated a system of de facto segregation; data derived from my

own study of the freshman registers and senior yearbooks at Harvard, Yale, and

Princeton yield the conclusion that blacks in 1960 probably comprised no more

than 1 percent of the student body at each of the three institutions, with

Hispanics even less represented. This de facto racial exclusion, visible at

other colleges and universities in the early 1960s as well, was still firmly in

place almost a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of

1954 and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956.

Yet by the early 1970s, for the first time in the nation's history, America's

leading institutions of higher education had finally opened their doors to

substantial numbers of black and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Hispanic

students. By 1972, for example, black students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

had come to comprise, respectively, 7, 8, and 10 percent of the freshman class.

Of all students enrolled nationwide at the undergraduate level (including those

at traditionally black institutions), the percentage of blacks rose from 4.3

percent in 1960 to 9.8 percent in 1975 (see David Karen's article in American

Journal of Education, July 1991). The most dramatic gains were made after

the urban racial upheavals of 1965-1968, which led, especially after the wave of

riots following Martin Luther King's assassination, to the institutionalization

of race-based programs. The rise of these programs coincided with unprecedented

gains for blacks and Hispanics in gaining access not only to the more selective

colleges but also to graduate and professional schools. This historic

democratization of educational opportunity would not have occurred without

affirmative action programs.

The effects of affirmative action on employment opportunities are less clear,

though evidence suggests that it has had a positive effect. It is easy to forget

just how exclusionary many labor markets were in 1965 not only in high-status

professions such as law, medicine, and academe but also in strategic

working-class domains such as construction unions and police and fire

departments. The increase in the number of black and Hispanic lawyers,

physicians, and professors in roughly the past two decades is well-known, but

the record in certain blue-collar jobs is just as impressive. For example,

between 1970 and 1990, the number of black electricians more than tripled (from

14,145 to 43,276) and the number of black police officers increased almost as

rapidly (from 23,796 to 63,855).

Less certain, however, is whether this increase can be attributed to

affirmative action programs per se rather than to other factors such as the

antidiscrimination legislation that was part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or

more general shifts in the climate of race relations. This is a complex and

rather technical matter, so some of the conclusions of the National Academy of

Sciences' Committee on the Status of Black Americans are of special interest. In

its summary report, "Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society," the

committee reports that "nearly all of the cross-sectional research finds

that blacks' employment share increased more in contractor firms subject to

affirmative action requirements than in firms without federal contracts."

The report cites as an example of the impact of federal affirmative action

programs and antidiscrimination legislation the "large increase in black

employment during the 1960s" in the South Carolina textile industry, which "previously

had barred almost all black workers."

There is thus a powerful body of evidence suggesting that affirmative action in

both education and employment has in fact succeeded in expanding opportunities

for minorities, including members of the black and Hispanic working class.

Indeed, it is this very success in redistributing scarce and valued resources

that has made affirmative action so politically controversial and aroused such

intense opposition among certain segments of the population, especially among

whites. It is primarily for this reason, I believe, that many

liberals--including Paul Starr and other contributors to The American

Prospect who are sincerely committed to racial equality--have reluctantly

concluded that the time has come to distance themselves from affirmative action,

if not to repudiate it outright.

In his article "Civil Reconstruction: What to Do Without Affirmative

Action," (TAP, Winter 1992), Starr's point that affirmative action

has taken a political toll from progressives and may have damaged their capacity

to build broad coalitions is a serious one; redistributing educational and

economic opportunity is guaranteed to be controversial even in the best of

times, and since 1973 affirmative action has been pursued in the context of a

declining economy and increasingly bitter zero-sum conflicts. Yet one can

acknowledge that affirmative action may have extracted significant political

costs without making the dubious claim--comforting to those who wish to abandon

race-based programs--that its "direct effects on the structure of

opportunity have been modest." Nor does Starr's conclusion that the liberal

commitment to affirmative action may have made the task of building political

coalitions across racial lines more difficult require that one believe that "affirmative

action policies have helped to perpetuate [white] racism"; in the face of a

serious challenge from below to the racial status quo, white racism would, I

suspect, have done quite well in any event.

Should the Supreme Court sharply curtail affirmative action, Starr concludes, "it

could prove a blessing in disguise." It is not at all clear to me that the

Supreme Court will, as he predicts, overturn the 1978 decision Regents of

the University of California v. Bakke , but of one thing I am sure: that the

elimination of affirmative action would be a serious setback to racial equality

and an unfortunate step backward into our nation's tragic racial past.


My old friend Jerry Karabel has neglected some

relevant distinctions in my article and its more general argument. I wrote in

the aftermath of the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, the departure from the

Supreme Court of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, and the Court's decision

in Croson, which restricted affirmative action in public sector

contracting and seemed to prefigure further restrictions by an even wider

conservative majority. I raised the question, if the Court does narrow

affirmative action, what other measures are available that will help us achieve

racial justice?

I made a distinction, however, between affirmative action adopted as a remedy

for historically demonstrated discrimination and affirmative action adopted to

improve racial balance and representation. The Court seems much less likely to

restrict the former, and I emphasized that I was in no way arguing against

strong enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. And when looking for examples of

the clear-cut successes of affirmative action, Karabel points to exactly the

kind of cases, like the electricians and textile mills, that are not at issue

between us. It is simply not clear, from the research I have read, that

affirmative action in the second sense has had the effects its advocates believe

it should have.

In any event, I suggested two other avenues for those concerned about improving

the social and economic conditions of minorities -- universal social and

economic programs, for which there are broader constituencies of support; and a

concerted effort to rebuild the social infrastructure of minority communities,

that is, independent institutions such as schools, community services, nonprofit

economic development agencies, and other "mediating structures" that

are vital to both civic life and prosperity. I didn't oppose the concept of

compensatory remedies. I advocated more emphasis on institutional rather than

individual remedies: an infusion of capital into minority institutions that have

never had much to work with before.

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