The University Record, December 10, 1996


Racial discrimination is immoral and unlawful
Professor Nicholas Steneck chides me (University Record, 26 November 1996) for failing to recognize the moral need for preferences by race and ethnicity. There is no such need. Different standards for different ethnic categories cannot be just; color of skin is not relevant to university admission. That is no less true now when preference is given to ethnic minorities than it was in times past when preference was given to the ethnic majority. When injustice is the game, turnabout is not fair play.

Compensation to those who have been wrongfully injured may indeed at times justify attention to race. But universities are neither competent nor authorized to make the findings of earlier statutory or constitutional violations that might justify racial remedies. Admissions officers may not presume to exercise the powers of a court. The Supreme Court has made that very clear.

Diversity in the student body is a goal universities rightly seek, but advancing that objective does not justify admissions based systematically upon race. Justice Powell, in Bakke, made that point forcefully. Outright preference on the basis of sex or ethnicity can never be justified, in morals or in law.

Prof. Steneck reports with pride the racial preferences he gives privately. His motives are surely honorable, and whatever our moral judgment of those acts, those acts are his private business. Very different is the case when the University of Michigan, an arm of our State government, gives preference by race. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Title 6] declares unambiguously that "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." This provision of Federal law, certainly governing us, is flagrantly violated by our preferential admission policies and practices. This is readily proved by official records of The University of Michigan---for which there is no space here but which are soon to be published---obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Admission certainly need not be based entirely upon numerical scores and averages to be fair. Individual merits---contribution to the community, the ability to overcome adversity, special talents, fine character, and other non-quantitative factors---are also rightly weighed; no sensible person will object to that. But to weigh such merits for applicants of one race while not doing so for applicants of another race is patently discriminatory. And since no ethnic group exhibits these merits of character disproportionately, the consideration of such individual characteristics cannot possibly explain or justify the patterns of systemwide racial discrimination exhibited by our University.

A double standard pervades admissions at the University of Michigan. If white applicants were given preference by our University as minority applicants are now given preference we would be justifiably outraged. But changing skin colors does not change the fact that outright favor is being given flatly on the basis of race. There is no moral justification for that.

Carl Cohen
professor of philosophy