Two Books for the Justices

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Fisher v. Texas back in October. That is the case questioning the policy of giving some students preferences in admission because their ancestry is thought to make them more “diverse” and therefore more valuable to have in the student body.

Before they make their decision, all nine justices should take the time to read two recent books that are pertinent to the merits and demerits of racial preferences. One of those books is Mismatch by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. The other is Wounds That Will Not Heal by Russell Nieli. Both books marshal powerful arguments that “affirmative action” not only fails to accomplish its purported goals (such as promoting cross-racial understanding and making society more just) but actually does a great deal of harm.

The conventional wisdom about racial preferences in college admissions (which is practiced only at a thin wafer of the country’s most selective institutions; most can’t afford to turn away any marginally competent student) is that doing so benefits almost everyone.

In her majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, for example, Justice O’Connor said that having more diversity at the University of Michigan’s law school was important because “All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide (leadership) training.” Similarly, University of Texas president Bill Powers extolled diversity in a Wall Street Journal op-ed the day Fisher was argued, saying that diversity in the classroom “enriches discussion, provides valuable insights and offers a deeper learning experience.”

You’d have to be grinchier than the Grinch to want to take away such wonderful benefits. Right?

But, as is the case with almost every government program, the benefits are exaggerated while the costs are ignored. Both Mismatch and Wounds correct that imbalance by showing that “affirmative action” isn’t so much a bed of rose petals as a bed of thorns.

Sander and Taylor argue that when our most prestigious schools admit students who have been given a large racial diversity boost, that does not do them a favor. On the contrary, by putting them into competition with classmates who for the most part are academically superior, the schools are setting them up for disappointment or even failure. Their research shows that, particularly in law schools where Sander has amassed a great deal of evidence, students admitted under racial preferences are much less likely to succeed than are similar students who attend less prestigious law schools where they are not mismatched.

If you think that getting more “minority” students into the legal profession is a good objective, you should therefore oppose racial preferences because they actually impede the realization of that objective. Racial preferences may be motivated by good intentions, but the policy has harmful unintended effects.

Nieli, who has written two superb papers for the Pope Center, makes the same argument, but appealing to different research. Let us say that we think it important to have more black and Hispanic college professors. Should we advocate racial preferences so that more black and Hispanic students will be admitted at our elite universities? Nieli contends that we should instead oppose preferences. He points to (among other evidence) a study done by Stephen Cole and the late Elinor Barber.

Cole and Barber observed that black students preferentially admitted at elite schools were apt to have low GPAs. Students with low class standing are unlikely to be accepted into the kinds of Ph.D. programs that are necessary if they are to ever have a shot at a tenure-track position. Therefore, the pipeline of minority students who could become professors is significantly smaller due to race preferences in admissions—another unintended consequence of racial preferences.

In fact, the problem begins well before college, Nieli shows. Another unintended consequence of racial preferences is that minority students come to count on them and rationally adjust their effort levels downward. On this point, Nieli cites the work of the late UC-Berkeley sociologist John Ogbu, who researched the academic habits of minority high school students from affluent, suburban families. Ogbu found that many of them chose to put in far less than their best efforts, knowing that they would get into good colleges anyway.

Advocates of racial preferences want people to believe that the results are all good, but beyond any question, that’s not true. The scales of benefit and harm have some very heavy weights on the harm side. Let’s look at one more.

Nieli devotes quite a few pages to his analysis of the perceived unfairness of preferences. Although proponents talk breezily about how diversity is supposed to “promote cross-cultural understanding” and “attack stereotypes” that’s just wishful thinking. It is far more likely that academic double standards will lead to increased hostility. He writes, “I would say that it is imperative that we seek policies that help to promote cooperation, understanding, and friendship among all the diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups to be found in America. And preferential policies, I contend, must by their very nature undermine efforts to further such cooperation, understanding and mutual friendship….”

The problem, he explains, is that any kind of preferential policy breaches America’s widely shared norm of fairness and reciprocity. Breaching that norm is “bitterly resented even by people who harbor no animus or ill-will towards the members of those groups (who benefit).” To buttress his argument, Nieli points to sociological research in mixed communities where the various groups lived in harmony until the advent of preferences for blacks. Even the most liberal among the white population, progressive Jews, began to look differently at blacks afterward.

That point gets at the overarching lesson of Nieli’s book: the mania for racial quotas (in education and elsewhere) is preventing America’s historic wounds of slavery and racism from healing. University presidents who loudly demand that the courts allow them to continue to admit certain applicants and reject others just on account of their ancestry are doing grave harm. By obsessing on race, they’re helping to prevent the country from getting beyond race and realizing Dr. King’s dream of a society where each individual is assessed on his or her own merits.

It is strange that we find virtual unanimity among higher education leaders on the “need” to prevail in Fisher and continue with racial preferences. Sander and Taylor write that there is a “code of silence” that makes it taboo for those leaders to acknowledge that there is any principled case against their pet policy.  This is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where no one in authority was permitted to deviate from the party line that socialism worked perfectly.

The publication of these two books, however, threatens that solid front. Mismatch and Wounds present such powerful critiques of racial preferences that at least a few college presidents may grudgingly concede that they are a bad policy. And even if not, perhaps a majority of the Supreme Court will heed the books and write an opinion that strikes down that misbegotten policy.