Diversity Versus Merit

The furor that recently erupted over the U.S. Naval Academy’s use of racial preferences to achieve a more “diverse” student body (which I wrote about here) has focused America’s attention on this festering sore. Should colleges and universities fill quotas of students from certain racial and ethnic groups so they can claim to be more diverse—or should they ignore such characteristics and just admit the most qualified applicants?

With virtually no dissent, the nation’s higher education leaders say they need racial preferences because it’s imperative to fight for diversity.

As an example, following the passage of Proposition 2 in Michigan in 2006, which banned racial preferences in the state, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman proclaimed, “If November 7th was the day that Proposition 2 passed, then November 8th is the day that we must pledge to remain unified in our fight for diversity…. Diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence, and too critical to our future to simply abandon.”

There’s a serious problem here for university leaders like Mary Sue Coleman: most Americans don’t see why it’s so important to get just the right percentages of this group and that group in a school’s student body. In fact, many don’t see the point of pasting labels like “African-American” or “Hispanic” or “Native American” on people and then treating individuals as “representatives” of these groups.

Instead of regarding diversity as something college leaders should fight for, many Americans (like the majority in Michigan) think that they should put down their swords and evaluate prospective students just the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said–not on the color of their skins, but the content of their character.

In an effort to defend the claim that “diversity” is truly “critical to excellence,” scholars in that camp have written numerous books and papers. Three books stand out as the most influential: The Shape of the River (1998), The Source of the River (2003), and Taming the River (2009). All were published by the prestigious Princeton University Press and their thrust is to defend the conclusion that “affirmative action” is a wise social and educational policy.

One scholar who has carefully read the three “River” books and does not believe they make a convincing case is Russell Nieli of Princeton University. Nieli, who has written two papers for the Pope Center (available here, and here has recently written a paper published by the National Association of Scholars, “Selling Merit Down the River.” Nieli’s paper is must reading if you want a true, “warts and all” picture of the effects of racial preferences to achieve diversity.

The “River” books were written, Nieli observes, “from the standpoint of those who passionately, even desperately, want to retain current racial preference policies … and to minimize or refute the claims of the policies’ many critics.” Unfortunately, that passion leads the authors (two for Shape and four each for Source and Taming) to overstate the supposed benefits of racial preferences and to ignore some significant problems they cause.

Nieli’s paper focuses on seven truths about preferential policies to which the authors are mostly if not completely blind.

  • Racial preferences stigmatize students in the beneficiary groups.
  • Racial preferences cause “upward ratcheting” that replaces good diversity with bad.
  • Beneficiary groups are harmed by the disincentive effects of preferences.
  • Preferences foster complacency about poor K-12 schooling.
  • Preference advocates misunderstand the black ghetto problem as segregation and poverty rather than dysfunctional families and culture.
  • The authors see the bad effects of preferences for athletes, but ignore the parallel effects of preferences for blacks and Latinos.
  • Racial preferences provoke enmity among those who aren’t favored.

Many academic papers have all the zing of a coke you poured three hours ago and forgot to drink. Not so with “Selling Merit Down the River.” Nieli doesn’t beat around the bush; he thinks that the advocates of diversity are deliberately avoiding the main criticisms of their policy and says so forthrightly.

For example, Nieli points out that only one of the three books deals with the issue of the harm done by racial preferences—that is, the disincentives created when preferred minority students know that colleges will accept them even with mediocre academic records. Shape of the River brought that issue up, but then brushed it aside in less than a page. For many years, writers such as John McWhorter and Shelby Steele have been saying that preferential admissions for blacks are harmful because they encourage students to coast rather than work their hardest. Why don’t the “River” authors investigate the argument?

It’s because they fear the answer, Nieli maintains. Diversity advocates know that the disincentive problem mortally wounds their case, so they avoid it. Scholars ought to pursue truth, but the defenders of affirmative action, as Jack Nicholson’s character put it in A Few Good Men “can’t handle the truth.”

Another good example of the “in your face” nature of the essay is Nieli’s handling of the common argument that racial preferences are necessary to overcome the bad effects of poverty and segregation. Most of the beneficiaries of admissions preferences have not grown up in conditions of poverty and segregation, but more importantly, there is nothing inherent in poverty and segregation that keeps a student from excelling on his own. The Chinese, Japanese, and more recently the Vietnamese have lived in poor and segregated communities, yet have enjoyed educational success and upward mobility without any “affirmative action.”

Maybe their success is precisely because there has been no affirmative action for them. The pro-preferences writers avoid mentioning the educational success of groups that aren’t on the “affirmative action” list.

Nieli’s attack is just as strong in each of his seven arguments.

Decades ago, young blacks who aspired to success were told by their leaders that they would have to work harder than others to prove themselves. “The message today,” Nieli writes, “that if you are black you don’t have to prove yourself, that you will be pitied and patronized and given a huge admissions boost over the whites and Asians in your class, may be more comforting to some blacks and surely reflects a decline in overt white hostility. But it is an unhealthy message nevertheless….”

If you had been taking Miracle Vitamin for years, believing the hype that it improves your life in every way and then heard that not only does it not improve your life but has a lot of bad side effects, you’d stop taking it. Wishful thinking is nice, but you wouldn’t let it damage your health. That’s a good analogy for higher education leaders and “affirmative action.” They’ve just been told that their own Miracle Vitamin, “affirmative action” does much more harm than good.

Will they listen?