Vanderbilt University wants a few good men -- preferably Jewish men (or women).
The Nashville school, determined to lift its academic standing, thinks that enticing Jews to its campus is a way to do it. It's not the only school doing that. Texas Christian University, for one, offers merit scholarships specifically for Jewish students. You read that right: Texas Christian.
At these colleges and others, Jews are valued for what sounds like a stereotype -- that Jews are smarter, for instance. Yet the numbers proclaim something like that to be the case. On the recent College Boards, Jews averaged 1161. Unitarians did somewhat better (1209), but the national average was 1020. At the elite Ivy League schools, Jews make up 23 percent of the student body. They are a measly 2 percent of the U.S. population.
"Jewish students, by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life," Vanderbilt's chancellor, Gordon Gee, told The Wall Street Journal. The very nature of their liveliness? Is this man out of his mind?
Actually, no. Gee is speaking both a specific truth and a larger truth: Not all groups are the same. This, I confess, is why I seized on the Vanderbilt story. For too long in this country, we have been determined not to notice what, literally, is sometimes in our faces: Groups, cultures, call them what you want, have different behavioral characteristics. I don't know if Jews are smarter than other people, but I do know they do better than other groups on the College Boards. That makes them different.
Normally, though, tons of epithets would fall upon the poor head of anyone who would cite such differences. We go so far as to treat all airline passengers as equal security risks, defying what we know about the real risk. This is done in the name of some sort of equality -- our national ethic that we are all the same.
So everyone is subjected to the possibility of a thorough stop and search. The individual whom Donald J. Carty, the CEO of American Airlines, called "Aunt Molly in Iowa" gets the same attention as someone who by virtue of age, sex, and ethnicity is the more likely risk. In a recent speech, Carty called this practice "nuts." He is right. Treating all passengers as equal security risks costs money, takes time -- and makes us no safer. In fact, it probably squanders resources.
Sometimes, the government's insistence on maintaining a false sameness borders on the comical. In March, The New York Times reported that a study of speeders on the New Jersey Turnpike concluded that where the speed limit was 65 mph, blacks sped more than whites. This could not be, the Justice Department said -- and it buried the report. The Justice Department did not say why this could not be, it just knew that because all people are the same, they drive the same and speed the same -- and, therefore, if blacks are stopped more than whites, it has to be on account of racial profiling.
There is such a thing as racial profiling based on little more than bigotry. That, though, is not the same as racial profiling based on real behavioral differences among groups.
Some Jews don't like what Vanderbilt and other schools are doing. I can understand that. If you single out Jews for real characteristics, what stops you from singling them out for fictitious ones? The answer, I both think and hope, is that we are past that.
I would say something similar about other groups as well. Jim Crow is dead. Racism exists, but it is waning, a spent force. We must insist on equality before the law. But we must insist also that we are not all the same.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His columns frequently appear in the Flyer.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."