Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2012, 2:44 pm

Soft bigotry of low expectations

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By Esther J. Cepeda

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being in a room of African-American undergraduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, giving a talk with fellow journalists about the impact of race on the upcoming presidential election.

The students' questions were well-thought-out and interesting. Often I interact with students who generally don't exhibit the same poise, maturity or ability to converse with adults as if they, too, were adults. This time, I was among students at an elite public university and it really showed.

Mindful that in early October the U.S. Supreme Court would be hearing Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could end the use of racial preferences in the admissions process, I gave a silent prayer that such practices would soon end. I can't wait for the day that ultra-bright minority students at top universities aren't seen by campus peers as people who got in at least partially because of the color of their skin.

In the years before an admissions scandal involving preferential treatment for certain applicants shocked the University of Illinois, white students made local headlines for openly rallying against affirmative action. Such demonstrations still happen on campuses across the country -- in September 2011, students at the University of California at Berkeley held a "Diversity Bake Sale."

But this isn't just a white thing. Some Asian-American organizations are looking forward to the end of racially balanced admissions, too. In February, the U.S. Department of Education was asked to look into complaints that some universities were requiring Asian-American students to score significantly higher on SAT scores than white students in order to gain admission.

A study by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit group opposed to racial preferences in college admissions, found that Asian-Americans at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had median math and reading SAT scores of 1370 out of 1600, compared with 1340 for white students, 1250 for students of Hispanic descent and 1190 for black students. An earlier study out of Princeton University found that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores 140 higher to gain admission to elite schools.

I've always believed that merit should be the rule in getting into college. And that the true responsibility for ensuring there are large pools of racially and ethnically diverse students who are adequately prepared to gain entry into colleges and universities lies not with higher ed, but with the public K-12 school system.

But then, instead of applying for No Child Left Behind waivers, states would actually have to find ways to ensure that the poorest students -- who usually attend the most highly racially segregated schools -- get the high-quality education that this country should provide for all children.

With such a Sisyphean task, is it any wonder that some find it much easier to support a higher education system that, instead, lowers the college access bar for minority students? That's not affirmative action, it's gross negligence.


Esther J. Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.