Opponents of affirmative action--the ones who believe that this
country is committed to equal opportunity based on pure merit--are
unhappy with last week's decision by the University of California regents
ending the ban on affirmative action in the UC system.
Although I agree with the regents' decision, I invite the opponents to
join me in fighting another form of discrimination in admissions: the
practice of relaxing standards to admit the scions of large donors.
Fighting against these "wealth preferences" should be philosophically
consistent with the anti-affirmative action position that admissions
should be based entirely on merit. After all, what merit is there simply
in having been born into a wealthy family?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the anti-affirmative action folks have not
raised the cry against wealth preferences. But why should affirmative
action for the wealthy be considered less objectionable than policies
that would give traditionally underrepresented groups an advantage in
getting into prestigious institutions? I would think the distinction cuts
the other way.
First, unlike minority students, wealthy kids generally have not been
educated in some of the nation's worst secondary schools. Indeed, there
is an almost a 100% correlation between having lots of money and
attending really good high schools. There is therefore no need to adjust
admissions standards to give these kids an edge just because their
parents are wealthy.
Second, unlike affirmative action for minorities, wealth preferences
cannot be defended on the grounds that wealthy students have suffered a
history of discrimination and/or continue to suffer the effects of a
demoralizing stigmatization. Who ever heard of a prestigious institution
where the wealthy had been systematically excluded? Who ever heard of
Third, wealth preferences cannot be justified on the grounds that
admission to the nation's best schools would help assure that all groups
have access to the highest echelons of corporate power. After all, right
there in the highest corridors of power are the wealthy kids' very own
It's interesting that the opponents of affirmative action are often
the same people who, rather than being committed to leveling playing
fields for all, are committed to enhancing the advantages of wealth,
i.e., eliminating the estate tax and reducing the progressiveness of the
tax code. So, again, I am asking: Are the arguments against affirmative
action really based on lofty notions of equal opportunity, or are they
based on protecting the existing privileges of those who need it the
William Marshall, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was Deputy White House Counsel during the Clinton Administration.
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times