Originally created 06/27/99

Guest Column: Quotas evolved into universal spoils system

(Editor's note: The author, John Leo, writes for U.S. News and World Report.).

SERIOUS PEOPLE probably shouldn't use the word under-represented. It's a word with an argument embedded in it -- that proportional representation by group, not ability or effort, should decide who gets what in America.

Still, most group complaints are framed in the language of "representation." Many blacks argue that they are over-represented among prison inmates and under-represented in most jobs worth having. Recent complaints from women's groups focused on under-representation in symphony orchestras and the art collection at the U.S. Capitol. Hispanics, who account for 56 percent of the population of Compton, Calif., argue that blacks are wildly over-represented among city jobholders. Asian-American students are said to be over-represented at elite public high schools, such as Stuyvesant in New York and Lowell in San Francisco. (Maybe they should try for lower marks in order to achieve a lower group representation.)

EVEN THE National Park Service is fretting about over-representation of white visitors to the parks, said to be at least 85 percent of the total, well above the 74 percent of the population accounted for by Caucasians. Plans are doubtless afoot to divert minorities from their non-park vacations until the proper ethnic representation is achieved at Yellowstone and other sites.

The recent flap over the lack of a black law clerk at the Supreme Court was a representation argument. Can it be that all nine justices are biased against blacks? Well, no. Chief Justice William Rehnquist basically said that he looks forward to the arrival of blacks into the top one tenth of 1 percent of young clerks able to compete successfully for these jobs.

It was the right answer.

Courts should look hard for clerks from all sorts of backgrounds. But at the level of the Supreme Court, justiceshave to pick the best and not worry about appearances or representation.

IN MARIETTA, Ga., a black school board member complained that blacks are only about 45 percent of the student population but close to 90 percent of those sent to the district's center for students with behavioral problems. The implication here is that the numbers alone prove bias, since over-representation in any negative category is automatically presumed to be unjust.

A blizzard of over-representation arguments greeted New York State statistics showing that more minorities than whites are in special education programs, even though the numbers seemed fairly close. Whites, with 58 percent of the school population, accounted for 54.3 percent of the special ed students.

The apparent assumption that only exact representation is acceptable led one bureaucrat to say, "We just don't want to jump the gun and go with an emotional response. There may be some reasons for this."

THE SAME assumption is being made in some gifted programs too, though various ethnic groups view the importance of education differently, producing different results. Under pressure from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Florida's Palm Beach County school district passed a new rule: All teachers with 10 or more poor or minority students in a class must nominate three of them as gifted. Those chosen still have to be evaluated by higher-ups, and it's possible the program will work fairly. But gifted programs are under political pressure. If they follow demands for representation, they will cease to be gifted programs.

The main problem with representation arguments is that they clash with the norms and standards set up to reward merit. So it's no surprise that supporters of representation have produced a series of arguments attacking merit. One helpful professor talked about the "illegitimacy of mainstream judgments of merit," and another academic discussed how qualifications for a job relate more to "meeting ever-shifting social needs."

ANOTHER PROBLEM is that demands for representation can't easily be confined to the protected groups established by the federal government. For instance, Italian-Americans have started to complain that they are seriously under-represented in the elite universities. ("The Italians are after us," said Harvard's admissions director. "I'm sure the Irish may be too.") White males may make a group argument as well. Since Jews and Asian-Americans make up almost half of the Harvard student body, non-Jewish white males (about 36 percent of the population) wind up with only 19 or 20 percent of admissions.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has a new diversity director, who probably intends to concentrate only on the usual protected groups. But she is bound to hear from Muslims, evangelicals, Appalachian whites, and other groups that are much less visible in newsrooms than blacks or Hispanics. Arthur Hu, an Internet pamphleteer and gadfly on diversity issues, calls the Christian right "the most underrepresented group" at top colleges. He says, "It's only a matter of time until the least represented begin sounding the mantra of diversity."

A UNIVERSAL spoils system is the logical outcome of representation. Do we really want to play it out this way, or can we just go back to merit?


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