The University of Wisconsin Discloses a New Kind of Racial Profiling

Lucas Morel

September 1, 2000

To show prospective students the diversity of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, admissions officials inserted a picture of a black student into a brochure cover picturing an otherwise lily-white crowd at a Badger football game. Talk about your racial profiling.

Embarrassed over the doctored photograph, the university will now spend $64,000 to reprint over a 100,000 applications with a new cover that omits student faces altogether. But the real damage occurred long before the misbegotten cover idea came to light. The real problem is that the university believes what you look like determines how you think.

Moreover, the lengths to which the University of Wisconsin went to demonstrate diversity was no aberration. It was simply the logical consequence of affirmative action practices that favor the race of an applicant over his or her resume.

College administrators used to defend affirmative action as a remedy for the effects of past discrimination in the application process and to prevent further racial discrimination. But taking “affirmative action” in theory became racial quotas in practice. It was easier to get the “right” number of minorities enrolled than it was to get the right fit between student preparation and university rigor—as lower graduation rates for minority students have shown. Avoiding the charge of racial discrimination was the order of the day, with the self-interest of colleges trumping the best interests of minority students.

As courts struck down the use of separate standards and procedures in reviewing minority applicants, defenders of affirmative action found a new justification for racial preferences in “diversity.” Exposure to multiculturalism as the sine qua non of a college education only accelerated this shift in rhetoric.

American colleges and universities claim they want a diverse student body for educational purposes. The problem comes when universities use an applicant’s race as a proxy for a diverse point of view. As American history proves, using race as a proxy for this or that behavior creates stereotypes that erode the civility necessary for a diverse people to live peaceably with each other.

This is why racial profiling in law enforcement deserves the recent media scrutiny: to ensure that police do not target minority citizens unfairly. A long history of persecution by the police has undermined respect for an institution black Americans, especially in the inner city, should have every reason to look to for protection.

And so the last thing colleges should be doing is teaching minorities that a meaningful education depends on attending a college that “looks like them.” If “Driving While Black” does not warrant categorical burdens imposed upon minority citizens, then “Learning While Black” should not stigmatize the learning process for minorities.

Unfortunately, President Clinton’s “Mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action and mantra about having an administration that “looks like America” has played no small part in perpetuating a racial mindset among Americans. A recent case in point is the media’s obsession with pointing out the black and Indian heritage of Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin. The gold-medalist and his parents, to their credit, refused to make his ethnicity an issue. The emphasis on the pluribus, rather than the unum, of our national motto undermines our efforts to unite the country by healing the racial chasm that now divides it.

Nonetheless, Vice President Al Gore has pledged to follow in the president’s footsteps by strengthening the divisive policy of affirmative action. His running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, has even reversed his earlier opposition to racial preferences by announcing to the Congressional Black Caucus: “I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action, and I will support affirmative action.” It wasn’t so long ago that Alabama Gov. George Wallace proclaimed: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Affirmative action appears to have done just that.

Obsession with what citizens look like trumps what we think and who we are as human beings and as citizens of a free society. Do we really want institutions of “higher” education to emphasize that what we look like is relevant to the pursuit of knowledge? Does this not reinstate a racial-mindedness that was the source of the greatest crisis of our nation’s past?

If the University of Wisconsin is any indication, colleges now believe that the beauty of education is only skin deep.

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.