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Affirmative action may disappear, but not the problems

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Affirmative action on campus got the ax the other day in California. It was a grand moment, at least for Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential campaign.

Wilson's new slogan: I kick minority butt.

Here's the problem. They started affirmative action because there seemed to be some history of inequity involving the races. You could look it up.

A few decades ago, pretty much everyone, including Wilson, thought affirmative action might be helpful, or at least be an improvement on riots in the streets. It even seemed to be working. There is a significantly larger African-American middle class today than there was 30 years ago. You could look that up, too.

But now, affirmative action is on the way out. It's out in California schools. Much of the rest of the country will probably follow.

And yet, there still seems to be a problem.

Minority groups still aren't scoring as well on educational tests. Minority students still aren't graduating from high school at the same rate as white students. Minority children still are more likely to be poor and less likely to grow up to be rich.

And colleges, more than ever, are the gateway to opportunity.

So, now there's a new plan.

Well, it's sort of a plan.

Actually, the plan is to have no more plans.

The plan is to dismantle affirmative action -- on campus and elsewhere -- and replace it with nothing.

It's the non-solution solution.

Here's the apparent logic: The harm that affirmative action -- on campus and elsewhere -- causes for for white people outweighs whatever benefits it affords minorities. And, besides, if you look really closely, it even hurts blacks, too, because everyone assumes that African-Americans can't succeed without preferences.

Whether or not you agree with that logic, it still doesn't resolve the problem.

That didn't seem to bother the University of California regents, who decided to go with the non-solution solution.

Pete Wilson got his big show. He got front-page headlines, and if generations have to suffer, well, Wilson did have an election to win.

In California, where the economy is a giant sinkhole and natural disasters resemble biblical plagues, they still have great beaches, wonderful smog-enhanced sunsets and their university system.

It happens that the University of California system is the best -- and, maybe coincidentally, most diverse -- in the country.

Berkeley, the centerpiece of the sprawling system, is my favorite campus. The old radical days are gone, but the school remains big and dynamic and home to Nobel laureates. The town's streets are lined with book shops and coffee shops and tattoo parlors.

But now, because some politicians want to make points, and because people are frustrated, and because times are hard, Berkeley won't be what it used to be.

Today, the campus is 39 percent Asian, 32 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and the rest some combination of the above. One UC study suggests that, without affirmative action, black attendance would decrease by 60 to 70 percent. Hispanics would probably also be losers.

It's difficult to see how this would be good for California (although it's easy to see how it could be good for Wilson).

Last year, the citizens of California voted to punish illegal immigrants. The law is now being challenged in the courts.

Next year, they'll vote on whether to end off-campus affirmative action programs. We can guess how that one will go.

After all this, California's economy may still be in trouble.

And those who say that affirmative action is polarizing the races might see some real polarization.

Sure, the system isn't perfect. It can be improved. Nobody wants quotas anymore. Nobody wants to take unqualified students or workers.

But even our president, not a particularly bold man, a politician who thinks statecraft begins with poll results, boldly supported affirmative action. He made a brave speech defending the program and asking that we mend it, not end it.

In California, at least, nobody was listening.

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