Not simply a black and white issue

There is nothing wrong with an admissions policy that favours minorities if it is properly targeted, says Lucy Hodges
The revelation that Harvard University has been favouring black students in its admissions policy should surprise no one who has recently spent time in America. But the furore this and similar stories has aroused runs the risk of throwing the affirmative action baby out with the bathwater.

The allegations are detailed. Harvard's elite school of government has, it seems, been evaluating black and white applicants separately. It has been admitting black students to its PhD in political science on lower qualifications than whites, and it has been taking these black students on full scholarships, which means they pay nothing. White students are given financial aid, too, but it is based on need or exceptional merit.

All of this could, on the face of it, be illegal. Recent Supreme Court rulings have made clear that race may be used to justify actions only in extreme cases - in "narrowly tailored" situations and for a "compelling interest". For example, a University of Maryland scholarship scheme for blacks only was halted last year. This summer, Pete Wilson, governor of California, persuaded the board of regents of the University of California to get rid of the affirmative action programmes it had been operating for the past two decades.

America is turning its back on the liberal policies of the Seventies. Angry white males are on the march, and one has some sympathy for them. It is not fair if they are denied access to a university place of their dreams only to see a less qualified woman or black person get it.

But it is also not fair that poor black or Hispanic kids are unable to get out of the ghetto and into higher education because they don't have the parents and schools that can give them a leg-up. To their credit, universities in America have a conscience about that. They also know that it is unhealthy for the nation to have a black and Hispanic lumpen proletariat stuck in the inner cities without college degrees and without a stake in the system.

Hence affirmative action policies. US colleges have been busting their guts to attract ethnic minority students and staff. It has not been easy because, of those poor blacks who complete high school, relatively few achieve respectable SAT scores (the equivalent of A-levels) and are at the starting gate for higher education,

But signs are that the practice of seeking out black students has worked. Go to the seat of government in Washington DC, and you will see hundreds of middle-class blacks pouring out of federal offices at 5pm. Many have college degrees. They earn a decent wage, are responsible, law-abiding citizens and probably live in the Maryland suburbs, well away from the ghettoes.

Their children attend schools that are a lot better than those in the city, and will eventually continue into higher education. Some, no doubt, are helped by the same liberal policies that aided their parents.

Yet there remains a hard core of mainly black Americans whom universities and other experts despair of being able to help. They are often from families dependent on welfare, have often attended lousy schools and may be tempted into lives of crime.The big question is how to reach them.

A little-known fact in all the huffing and puffing about affirmative action is the special help that exists for two groups - athletes and the children of alumni. It is much easier for an ace footballer or basketball player to gain entry to an American college than it is for someone with decent SAT scores. And the athletes barely need to be able to read or write.

It is also relatively easy for the offspring of former students to gain admission to elite colleges. Places are set aside for them. According to some estimates, they occupy one-tenth of all places at the Ivy League universities of Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

It is the continuing existence of an underclass and the programmes that favour athletes and alumni that makes universities loath to give up affirmative action.

Some universities did not undertake such action voluntarily in the first place but were forced into it through court order. The University of Maryland, for example, reflecting its past in a plantation state, was an all-white institution until the Sixties. It was ordered by the courts to make amends for past segregation and its scholarships for blacks were part of that.

Before the scholarship programme was struck down, I spent a day tracking a young black woman at Maryland who was being educated on one of these scholarships. She was bright, personable and ambitious, a typical product of the American system at its best. She was majoring in business studies, intended to move on to graduate school for an MBA and eventually to set up her own business.

This student was not poor but middle-class. Both her parents were college- educated. Her father was a businessman, yet she was getting a free education, with all tuition and board and lodging paid while hundreds of poor blacks languished a few miles away without any higher education on the streets of Washington DC. It is not that help is not needed, simply that it needs to be closely targeted.