Affirmative Action Actually Hurts Campus Race Relations

The Supreme Court held, in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, that it is permissible for universities to give some students preference in admission on the basis of their race. That decision was a serious mistake and it is time to correct it. 

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is unambiguous: “No state…shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” But the Court ruled in Grutter that admissions preference given to blacks and other minorities by a public university is not inconsistent with equal protection. 

The majority reasoned as follows: Taking race into consideration is sometimes a pressing public necessity. Unequal treatment of the races may then be compelling, and preference given to the members of one ethnic group over others may be justifiable. 

In the realm of university admissions, the benefits of a racially diverse student body can be achieved only when the number of minority students enrolled reaches a “critical mass.” At least, that is the claim made by many university officials; a majority on the Supreme Court accepted it with virtually no judicial scrutiny.

So the enrollment of minorities in greater numbers is a said to be a compelling state interest, and that interest justifies racial preferences (loosely called “affirmative action”).

Grutter’s essential premise is that a racially diverse student body leads to educational benefits for all students. The Court accepted that proposition—but it should not have. There is good reason to doubt that the claimed benefits of diversity in the classroom are even genuine, much less compelling. 

One huge study conducted by Seymour Lipset, Stanley Rothman, and Neil Nevitte involving thousands of faculty members and students at 140 U.S. colleges and universities sought to determine the educational impact of racial diversity. (An abstract and the entire study are available here.

Subjects were asked to give their evaluation of the quality of education at their institution, of the academic preparation and work habits of their student body, and of the state of race relations on their campus. Then separately, using government statistics, the investigators, three outstanding scholars, determined the proportion of black and other minority students at each institution involved. 

If diversity has the great benefits claimed for it, institutions with higher proportions of minority students should surely have been rated more highly than those with lower proportions. 

The reverse proved to be the case. Every benefit claimed for campus diversity was contradicted by the results of this study. Students, faculty and administrators all responded to increasing racial diversity by registering increased dissatisfaction with the quality of education at their institution and the work ethic of their peers.

In every instance, a higher level of diversity was found to be associated with less educational satisfaction and worse race relations among students. Even if these results are wide of the mark, a study so large and carefully devised seriously undermines the claim that the educational benefits of racial diversity are “compelling.” They are very probably illusory. 

As I have learned in decades of teaching at the University of Michigan, it is always the merit of the ideas discussed and defended that make classes in philosophy enriching and worthwhile. The color or the character of the persons who present them are of no consequence. An effective philosophical argument stands on its own feet; it does not depend in any way on the ethnic diversity of students in the classroom. 

But suppose the alleged benefits of diversity are to some extent real. In weighing them must we not also weigh the costs, the damage done by the deliberate discrimination employed to achieve them? Race preference is, in itself, a great evil, and from it flow consequences much to be regretted. 

Preference divides the society; it does not heal racial wounds but exacerbates them. Preference corrupts the universities in which it is practiced, creating pressures to discriminate by race in appointments, in grading, and even in the award of honors. 

Preference breeds hypocrisy; college officials hide what they are doing, sometimes lie about it. Preference obscures the real social problem of why so many minority students are not academically competitive, and thus delays an effective response. 

Preference obliges us to choose the ethnic groups to be favored, and to devise rules to decide who is a member of what group. How much blood is needed? One drop? One grandparent? One great-grandparent? These are perilous questions in any society. In America, where it is our pride that each person is to be treated as an individual and not as a group representative, questions about group membership leading to the preference of one group over another are nasty and out of place. 

Preference reduces incentives for academic excellence. Preference encourages self-separation by racial and ethnic minorities. Preference mismatches students and institutions, greatly increasing the likelihood of failure for many minority students. Preference does injury to race relations over the long haul.

Worst of all, race preference undermines the minorities it was intended to support. If minorities are admitted to colleges on lower standards it is a statistical certainty that they will perform less well than the majority—not because of intellectual inferiority but because of those corrupt admissions. Preference thus forges a link between the minority and inferior performance, reinforcing the ethnic stereotypes that we know to be cruel and false. 

When all these consequences are put on the scale, and weighed against the alleged benefits of diversity, it is impossible to conclude that those benefits (if they exist at all) are such compelling needs of the state as to justify deliberate racial discrimination.

The decision in Grutter v. Bollinger must be reversed.

Four members of the Supreme Court—Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts—have in earlier opinions made their opposition to racial preferences clear. This fall, the Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas for the second time. If one other member of the Court can be persuaded to join those four, a great and damaging mistake may be at last corrected.