Education, Equality and Race

John Agresto

April 1, 1995

When has America not been divided, harassed and harmed by the race issue? The best instinct of the Founders–that all men are created equal–was undercut and submerged by the irrepressible fact of slavery. The lives of thousands given in the service of abolition were forgotten in the years of segregation, black codes and Jim Crow. And now (with the best of intentions we are told) the vision of a nation where race doesn’t matter will not materialize–now and in the future people will be helped or hindered because of their complexion. Dwell on race. Count by race. Classify by race. Take race "into account." Reward by race. Harm by race.

Worst of all, leadership in this new policy lies not in the ranks of the former agents of ill will but in the one place America has looked to for civility, for enlightenment, and even for wisdom: our colleges. Has the resegregation of America happened anywhere else with the fury–and the design–that we see on college campuses?
But part of the evil, the greater part, is the college’s own doing. Shall we treat people equally, without regard to color? Well, no. Not if, as at one school, you decide to pay for all campus visits, but only for black applicants. Not if, as at another college, you decide to give full financial aid to all minority students, regardless of need. Not if, as many colleges proclaim, you let minority students work less, or take out fewer loans, than non-minority students and make up the difference with college funds. Not if, as at one major university, you decide to enhance the salaries of candidates for faculty positions, so long as they are women and minorities. Not if, in following the lead of the Department of Education, schools decide that racially-based scholarships are perfectly okay; that public money can be given to some people and denied to others simply on the basis of their race.

The philosophical objections to these actions are immense. The moral conscience of most Americans, whether they acted on it or not, has always known that judging, rewarding, denying and promoting by race has no place in decent civil society. Color is an accidental, not essential characteristic; it does not make a person better or more worthy or finer, lesser or debased or degraded. To judge merit on the basis of race is to judge irrationally. Notice how the moral sense rebels at that thought, for example, of a store that charged one race more than another for the same goods; or if the government decided that some people, because of their complexion, could pay less in taxes. Yet, are we doing anything different in our colleges and universities?

Today, we are told, schools and colleges can have "race-conscious" and "race-targeted" policies because now there is something afoot more important than racial impartiality: "diversity." So long as it is in the service of campus diversity, virtually any form of racial preference is allowed. (Or, rather, is diversity the means of achieving racial preferencing? Sure is hard to say.) This means, of course, racial preferences in admissions, in faculty hiring and retention, in minority-based scholarships, in reduced loan burdens, and in reduced student work hours but at higher pay–all for preferred groups.

Let us not be quick to argue that these polices are wrong because they violate the "rights" of the majority. They are wrong not because of damage they do to majority groups but because of the damage they do to the principle of equality and non-discrimination, a principle that benefits all people. And, as is becoming so painfully clear, the real losers in race-based preferences are often not members of some putative majority, but members of some not-now-preferred minority.

My guess is that not long ago, the best educators and administrators in America were wholeheartedly and correctly on the side of non-discrimination and color-blindness. When we first embraced affirmative action policies, it was as they were originally and rightly conceived–as a way of casting the widest net, of looking here and everywhere, for the finest candidates regardless of race or ethnicity. Unlike today’s discriminatory affirmative action, nondiscriminatory affirmative action was a wise and just policy, one that sought to find the best regardless of race.

To see how pernicious distinctions and rewards based on race really are, consider the response often given in support of such programs–"The university favors children of alumni, it has sports scholarships, it has "merit" scholarships for academically gifted students. The university consistently classifies students and treats them differently, so why not do the same for minorities?" But why is it that one’s moral sense would be indignant, would rebel, if the policy were not "alumni preference," but "alumni preference, as long as they’re white," or "sports scholarships, but not for Jews," or "non-Asian merit scholarships." See what a difference race makes? See how categorizing and rewarding by race repels? In America, race matters. Race is the single most divisive fact in our nation. And we lie to ourselves if we say we are doing good when we separate, reward and punish by race.

Not uncommonly, when we discard a great and good principle–in this case the principle of equality and non-discrimination–bad things happen. And on our campuses, bad things are happening with a vengeance. Have racial incidents, or racism itself, ever been higher? Having taught people to judge by race and prefer by race, why are we surprised when they do?

Speaking practically, what do we colleges and universities teach when we decide, admit and reward by race? Have we treated each of our students as responsible individuals, with individual and unique minds? Or, having judged people’s minds and outlooks by their pigmentation, have we taught students to categorize and pigeonhole by race? Have we prepared our students for the world of work they’ll soon enter? Shall they expect to be hired, promoted or retained on the basis of color? And, having said to America for so long, do not judge by race, do not prefer by race, we now say dwell on race, and see how the spoils of society are divisible through race competition.

Not too long ago we worried about the "two cultures" in the academy–about the gap between scientists and humanists. But now there are two new cultures bedeviling education, and the gulf between them is immense: I mean the antagonism between contemporary education and the public. In narrowness of scholarship, in smallness of vision, in our unwillingness to promote or often even to understand civic needs, a large part of the academy sets itself up in conscious opposition to the common sense of the American public. And, in the area of race, we see how far behind the decent moral sense of the American people our schools and colleges can be.

Whatever the motive–because it seems easy and currently acceptable, or because everyone’s doing it, or because they feel intimidated by threats or epithets–categorizing, judging and rewarding by race is all the rage in higher education. But we on this campus find in our documents words that say that admissions, appointments, promotions, honors, salaries and aid will be carried out without regard to race, color, sex or creed. Without regard. Just two little words, but two words that teach the best that we can teach.

John Agresto is President of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This piece first appeared in the St. John’s College newsletter, LETTERS from Sante Fe.