Angst about whites doesn’t play well off campus

Add Western Washington University’s president to the next edition of “Why Do Smart Guys Say Dumb Things?”

Bruce Shepard is being paraphrased as saying that Western is “too white.” That’s not quite what he said, but it’s easily inferred from statements he’s been making. Such as: “If in decades ahead, we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university.”

Shepard seems mysteriously selective about the demographics we should worry about. Western’s enrollment is 55 percent female, 45 percent male. Will Western be a “failure” in years to come if it is a female as it is today? What if the enrollment of Chinese- or Korean-American students isn’t calibrated properly?

See how easily this slides into something ugly and divisive?

Shepard is employing incendiary rhetoric to highlight a genuine challenge. Most of Washington’s public school graduates are white, but the percentage is declining (especially if you ignore the fact that Latinos often self-identify as white). The state’s public universities must adapt to that trend and figure out how to invite and accommodate more students of color.

That’s not quantum mechanics. The point could be made in terms of expanding opportunity for non-whites, not decreasing the number of whites.

Defining the problem as a potential overabundance of white students shows appalling tone-deafness – not to mention tactical stupidity – in a state whose citizens are overwhelmingly white.

This kind of talk produced a political backlash against affirmative action in the 1990s.

Initiative 200 – which forbids preferences based on race, ethnicity and gender – passed overwhelmingly in 1998. Many voted for it on the perception that whites were becoming victims of reverse discrimination. In politics, perceptions are realities.

I-200 is still on the books. In a January blog post, Shepard cited a U.S. Supreme Court finding that “race may be used as a factor in the admissions process.” Not in Washington, it can’t.

The truth is, the battle to help blacks and Latinos reach college is often lost long before the admissions office gets involved. Many don’t have access to high-quality public schools, and many are disadvantaged by poverty and the fact that their parents never made it all the way themselves.

Come to think of it, many white kids face the exact same disadvantages.

These are deep-rooted problems. Their solutions require broad public support. We’ll fix them more easily if academic leaders don’t suggest that winners and losers must be sorted out by race.