How many blacks are enough?


THE LATEST BAD news about blacks and public education -- that UCLA’s incoming class of 4,700 this fall includes only 96 blacks, the fewest in more than 30 years -- has many blacks understandably up in arms. Whether everybody else is so concerned remains to be seen.

Many blacks are calling for accountability and action; an alliance of scholars, alumni and activists held a news conference at UCLA last week to air their outrage and to publicize the findings of a report by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies on the ever-vexing subject of black admissions. The report chastises the university for being too lax in admitting qualified black students since affirmative action was killed by University of California policy in 1995, then by California voters in 1996.

In other words, although the lack of affirmative action is a factor in the current crisis, the more immediate problem lies with the practices of the admissions office itself. Without official pressure, the report charges, UCLA and other public universities tend not to adequately consider qualified black candidates. And that’s unacceptable.


I wholeheartedly agree. (Disclosure: I’m a member of the UCLA Black Alumni Assn., though a very recent member.) But as long as people see black admissions as a result of affirmative action -- a policy that’s become as repugnant to conservatives and most centrists as higher taxes -- there’s going to be a problem.

The truth is, UCLA has always had a hard time recruiting decent numbers of black students. I should know. I worked for a couple of outreach programs in the admissions office in the mid-1980s, when such programs were not only legal, they had some cachet.

It was tough. The critical mass of university-ready black students that I imagined was out there in the public schools, just waiting for a bit of encouragement from a friendly role model like me, was just that -- imaginary. I pored over lists of black students at high school campuses in the allegedly fertile San Fernando Valley as if I were panning for gold. I had to play the talented-tenth game, prodding and pleading with my few black prospects to come to Westwood, or at least to apply.

But blacks never got close to the holy grail of parity: reaching the same percentage of the UCLA student body as in the statewide population of high school graduates. The irony is that affirmative action was banished in part because of a perception that students of color were overrunning universities like UCLA -- that is, the policy was working too well. But in fact, it wasn’t working well enough, certainly not for blacks.

How many black students are too many? That’s the impolitic but very real question that drove many a debate about race and higher education. Beneath the blather about academic standards and colorblindness was a concern about maintaining power and control: Just how many of these folks are we going to let in? 100? 200?

Blacks raise this gatekeeper anxiety more than any other group because white elitism has always depended on black marginalization. Historically and psychologically, black enrollment in higher education is more fraught than, say, Asian or Latino enrollment. Since the ‘60s, it has been standard practice to have some blacks on campus, just as there are always a couple of black faces at the most exclusive party in town.


To many people, that pair of faces is plenty, a good-enough show of magnanimity on the part of the host to make it a successful party. To others, the chronically few black faces are an insult, a reminder that 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education and 40 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America has yet to achieve integration.

Which raises the question: Does America really want to? After all, this incremental integration never seems to raise a lot of temperatures, mostly because it feels normal. Indeed, this country has known nothing else, and if integration stops altogether and UCLA’s admissions of black students slow to a trickle, even in 2006 -- well, what of it? Maybe many people not-so-secretly think that blacks simply can’t make the grade. Maybe, if blacks haven’t caught up after all this time (40 whole years), they don’t belong -- not just at UCLA but in American society.

With the Bunche report, blacks will try yet again to hold an institution’s feet to the fire. But it’s a fire that’s cooling to embers, and maybe to something less.