Robert T. Teranishi, assistant professor of higher education at New York University, said that his research was designed to counter the “blaming the victim” mentality in which he said people assume black enrollment declines suggest a lack of merit by black students.
The reality, he said, is that a new form of school segregation has taken hold in which in post-affirmative action California, the best way for a black or Latino student to get into a University of California campus is to attend a “white” high school.
Teranishi’s research focuses on California high schools and the relationship between attending high schools with certain characteristics and enrolling at a University of California campus. He started by noting that while California is famous for its ethnic and racial diversity (in statewide totals), 88 percent of high schools have a racial majority of one group. Of those schools, he said, 44.7 percent have a white majority, while 43.4 percent have a black or Latino majority. But among new University of California students, 65.3 percent come from white majority schools and only 21.7 percent come from black or Latino majority schools.
From there, Teranishi presented data showing educational inequities in the different kinds of schools, such as studies showing that the greater the proportion of black and Latino students in a high school, the fewer Advanced Placement courses that are likely to be offered.
The cumulative impact of these inequities is such that minority students who are admitted to top University of California campuses are more likely to have attended white majority schools than other schools. At Berkeley, for example, 48.9 percent of the underrepresented minority students admitted attended white majority high schools, while 33.6 percent attended high schools that were black or Latino majority and 17.5 percent attended high schools without a racial majority. At the University of California at San Diego, the percentage of new black and Latino students coming from white majority high schools is 52.6 percent.
Teranishi said that such data should shake up people who think that some pure idea of merit is at play in selecting the best students for top colleges. Is it fair to tell black and Latino students, he asked, that to have a good chance at getting into UCLA or Berkeley, “they need to attend a white school"?
Walter Allen, professor of higher education at UCLA, said that what the data suggest are that admissions systems supposedly designed to favor merit are in fact systems that “protect privilege” and end up ripping off black and Latino people generally — either as would-be students or as taxpayers. “The poor folks are subsidizing the educations of wealthy people,” he said.
Teranishi's research (disputed by some people in the comments at Inside Higher Ed) is intriguing; but it hardly proves that the students who are being rejected by the top colleges are qualified for admission. The availability of advanced placement courses, and resources in general, is undoubtedly a factor; but there may be other reasons black and Latino students from majority white schools do better -- such as a school culture more supportive of scholastic achievement.
Instead of renewing the call for crude racial-preference policies, it might be worth it to look at what those majority-white schools are doing right.
My own article on racial preferences, from 2001, can be found here.