Affirmative Action Special Report
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The 10 Percent Solution

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 19, 1997; Page A25

It is now standard fare in every conversation about affirmative action: Somebody notes that if you refer to "affirmative action" in a poll, people say they're for it. But if you refer to a program that uses "preferences" or "quotas," people say they're against it.

This is interpreted as showing how easily public opinion is manipulated. Here's an alternative view: People know exactly what they're saying. They seek a society that recognizes hard work, striving and merit. They also care about fairness and know that racism and economic disadvantage deprive many of a fair start in life.

There is no contradiction here. Many years ago the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset recognized that the American character is marked by two central ideas: equality and achievement. Each conditions the other. Because Americans believe in achievement, they reject the sort of equality that levels everyone to the same set of rewards and income.

But our belief in achievement is tempered, in turn, by our belief in equality. Americans don't think high achievers should lord it over everyone else, or that kids should be damaged just because their parents achieve less than others, or that social status should be linked to income or inherited position. Nor do we believe that a single failure in life ought to block someone forever from having another shot at greatness. We're a country that loves underdogs as well as winners.

Putting these ideas together is a central task for President Clinton's race initiative -- and for those who want to save some form of affirmative action. The president got a little testy at his news conference Tuesday when he was grilled on how well the initiative was going. He should be grateful he was challenged to articulate a mandate for his race commission that has so far eluded it.

Clinton noted that the affirmative action debate as it relates to college admissions is focused on whether standardized tests, such as the SAT, should be the main determinant of who gets in and who's left out. SAT scores are taken as synonymous with "merit." It's true that SAT scores are not a bad predictor of success in college. But as Clinton said, they are "not a perfect predictor."

The president made the key point just in passing. He mentioned a new Texas law requiring that the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in the state be admitted automatically to the University of Texas or some other college in the Texas system. The law was pushed by Latino and African American legislators after the university's affirmative action program was ruled unconstitutional.

The great strength of the "10 percent plan," as University of Texas law professors William Forbath and Gerald Torres argue in the current issue of the Nation, is that it embodies "a standard of merit even more deeply rooted than the SATs: working hard, getting good grades and doing very well what's expected of you." It also "provides a powerful new incentive to students whose horizons have been unfairly narrowed by class: Work hard and you can go to UT."

The irony is that patterns of residential segregation mean that the plan will benefit black and Latino students without using any racial criteria at all. In many schools, every member of the top 10 percent will be black or Latino. Forbath and Torres quote historian David Montejano, who notes that "this law is colorblind, but it uses our bitter history of segregation to promote diversity." It will also help poor white kids who might not otherwise have a chance.

The Texas law is not a cure-all. Being at the top of your class in a bad school does not guarantee success in college. Affirmative action at the college level is no substitute for fixing elementary and high schools. The law could also hurt highly qualified Texas kids who happen to go to good high schools. A university with a strong national reputation could be forced to admit fewer out-of-state students. Forbath and Torres also note that this law does not address the problems of affirmative action for postgraduate education.

But the "10 percent plan" is a big start in getting us to think along the right lines. As a country, we can't give up trying to include the excluded. And we don't want to give up the values of hard work and merit. Texas is telling us that with some creative thinking we can advance on both fronts.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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