Issue Number 19 - December 5, 2002




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"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair . . . This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

- President Lyndon B. Johnson, addressing the graduating class of Howard University, July 4, 1965.

Sometime next summer, affirmative action in higher education may finally come undone. President Johnson's promise of a national commitment to equality of "results" - that is, numerically provable Black representation at all levels of society in something resembling their proportions of the population - rang like victory's bell. The President of the U.S. had embraced not only the moral underpinnings of the movement, but the absolute necessity of the achievement of Black people's material goals.

Ask anyone Black who remembers that day if they felt "shamed" or "insulted" by Johnson's words. To be sure, many African Americans doubted the Texan's sincerity, and few believed that he spoke for the bulk of white America. But to hear Power acknowledge the Truth of the debt owed to all African Americans for the very first time in U.S. history, was glorious. Johnson's words might come to nothing, but at least we knew that our hands had wrenched them from his lips. He had abandoned all claims to the moral authority of white privilege, and accepted the government's responsibility to redress historical crimes by adjusting the playing field to our advantage.

There was at that time little doubt about the meaning of affirmative action, although the suddenness of Johnson's capitulation revealed that few actual plans of implementation existed, even on paper. The promise was unambiguous: the rules would be changed to effectuate the desired societal results. There was also no confusion as to who was to benefit from affirmative action: Black people. Period. Who else had been "hobbled in chains...?" The morally flabby and legally vague term "diversity" had not yet made its appearance.

Long march backwards

We will not recount the details of the disintegration of the national commitment announced by LBJ 37 years ago. It is enough to say that the same forces that opposed every advance of Black people, before and after the 1954 school desegregation decision have all but completed their long march backwards. They are one U.S. Supreme Court swing vote away from administering the coup de grace to even the flaccid concept of "diversity" in student enrollment at the University of Michigan's law school. Two white female high school "B" students will make the case that their "right" to "equal protection under the law" trumps centuries of historical wrongs - that they have educational "rights" based largely on test scores.

The Michigan law school admitted Blacks and Hispanics whose academic records were similar to or lesser than the two white women's because the alternative would have been an almost lily-white student body. The pool of applicants' test scores said so. As reported by the New York Times, December 3:

Despite its outreach and recruitment efforts, the university said, the law school received only 35 applications from minority students at the top range of undergraduate grades and law board scores that account for nearly all admissions. In contrast, the school received 900 applications from white students in that range.

Even with a "race-blind lottery," the [university's] brief said, "the percentage of African-American students enrolled would almost certainly fall below 3 percent." At the law school today, 74 of 1,109 students are black (6.7 percent) and 49 are Hispanic (4.4 percent)....

The law school considers not only grades and scores but also "soft variables," including unusual achievements and experiences, non-academic performance, personal background, and ability to make a "notable contribution" to the class. The policy seeks "meaningful numbers" of students from groups that have been historically discriminated against, in the belief that learning to "work more effectively and more sensitively" in a multiracial world is important for a lawyer's education.

The law school is tepidly attempting to do what President Johnson called for in 1965, yet it should now be obvious that such piddling around the edges of privilege serves only to increase these programs' vulnerability to challenge by the insatiable Right, which seeks to maintain white dominance in every avenue of life.

In 1965, the disparity between Black and white performance on standardized tests was greater than today, and only small numbers of Blacks were encouraged to take the SATs. Few people argued that anyone had a right to admission to a prestigious school based on test scores. Yet, in practice, SAT scores were becoming the equivalent of legal tender, the price of admission to the upper strata of education and resulting economic mobility. Although not mandated by law, the all but universal practice of giving great weight to SATs has had the effect of freezing into place privileges of race and class. The Hard Right's legal guns are on the verge of enshrining SAT-based privilege into law, for all practical purposes. There appears to be no way to stop them other than to take the SATs out of the college admissions equation or, at the very least, render them a minor factor. Whites can keep their high test scores; they just shouldn't count for much.

The illusion of democracy in education

U.S. higher education enrollment more than doubled between 1955 and 1965, from 1.5 million to 3.8 million students. By 2000, 10 million full-time students were enrolled in colleges and universities, a population that is now overwhelmingly defined by SAT scores. The explosion in numbers gave the illusion of greater democracy and general mobility, but in fact the composition of college classrooms is essentially determined by the rigid dictatorship of SATs.

When Johnson spoke to Howard University's students in 1965, he was acquiescing to Black political demands. However, white universities were simultaneously institutionalizing the rule of standardized testing. Four decades later, the chickens have come home to roost. The autumn Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports that the gap between Black and white SAT scores has increased over the past 14 years, and "there is no compelling evidence that any improvement is in the offing." The numbers spell disaster:

In 1988 the average combined score for whites of 1036 was 189 points higher than the average score for blacks. In 2002 the gap between the average white score and the average black score had grown to 203 points. In the past year alone the black-white scoring gap on the SAT increased by two points.

For whatever reasons - and Black youth do not have the luxury of waiting for the reasons to be discovered - economic status appears not to be a major factor in the Black-white SAT gap. "Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 46 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of between $80,000 and $100,000," according to the JBHE study. The logic of the numbers is inexorable: Blacks must categorically reject SAT-type tests as criteria for college admissions, or accept that they will disappear from the elite regions of academia, and the less prestigious schools, as well.

In a race-neutral competition for the approximately 50,000 places for first-year students at the nation's 25 highest-ranked universities, high-scoring blacks will be buried by a huge mountain of high-scoring non-black students. Today, under prevailing affirmative action admissions policies, there are about 3,000 black first-year students matriculating at these 25 high-ranking universities, about 6 percent of all first-year students at these institutions. But if these schools operated under a strict race-neutral admissions policy where SAT scores were the most important qualifying yardstick, these universities could fill their freshman classes almost exclusively with students who score at the very top of the SAT scoring scale. students make up at best between 1 and 2 percent of these high-scoring groups.

Higher education will survive the trap it set for itself, but Black student bodies are destined to whither away unless the relative weight of standardized testing is drastically reduced or eliminated. There is no other choice.

"Diversity" programs, grafted onto a larger machinery of SAT-reinforced white privilege, were never destined to achieve anything like Johnson's "equality as a fact and as a result." Designed as pitiful substitutes for racial justice, they are about to be flattened entirely. The immediate antagonists are Hard Right lawyers, but the institutional culprit is standardized testing.

New white rights

The plaintiffs at the University of Michigan law school are seeking to give test scores something approximating the force of law. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the white women, persons who have achieved higher test scores will be entitled to commensurate, enhanced "rights" under the law as long as these tests carry weight. Black students will have no rights other than those bestowed on them by the Princeton Educational Testing Service. The assault against the Black presence in higher education is fundamental, and can only be effectively countered by a battle to expunge the SAT's from national life. It's us or them.

Black people's rights to historical redress are about to be replaced by a new right to test-based privileges. Unless the tyranny of standardized tests is abolished, root and branch, there is no hope for generalized Black upward mobility through education.

Let no one tell us what we can't do, that standardized testing to too entrenched to overcome. Lyndon Johnson was compelled to announce with his own voice that affirmative action marked "the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights." Those who think the battle has been won, that Blacks need to move on to some other arena, need to look at the numbers - and finish the fight.

The autumn Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

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