A Broad and Devastating Offensive Against Racial Preferences

Last year, advocates of racial preferences in California, where they’d been banned  since 1996, attempted to change the law so that state colleges and universities could again give admission advantages to certain groups. Despite outspending opponents by about 15-1 and with backing from big business, labor, and other organizations, the effort at repealing racial neutrality failed by 57-43 percent.

That result underscores a point that opinion polls have shown for decades—that Americans on the whole oppose racial favoritism. The California result suggests that the case for preferences is on thin ice.

A new book is going to help further melt that ice.

Law professors Gail Heriot and Maimon Schwarzschild have edited a volume entitled A Dubious Expediency: How Race Preferences Damage Higher Education. Its eight essays deliver a crushing blow to the case for racial preferences. Not only do preferences fail to achieve their proclaimed goals of improved education, racial healing, and improved social mobility for allegedly “marginalized” groups, but they do palpable harm. They promote divisiveness, erode academic standards, and hinder many of the students who supposedly benefit from them.

Any fair-minded reader of this book will come away lamenting that America ever left the path of color-blind merit and started down the path of, well, discrimination. Never mind that racial preferences were intended to be “good discrimination” that would remedy the effects of many years of bad discrimination. Good intentions don’t matter. The results have been ruinous.

In the first essay, “Starting Down the Slippery Slope” by UC-Santa Cruz Professor John Ellis, we read about the earliest days of racial preferences, when the university decided to take federal money that was available, provided that the school begin to look “diligently” for women and minority students and encourage them to apply for grad school. Ellis explains that he never thought that doing so would mean compromising academic standards, but once the process began, it was unstoppable.

University officials, wanting the numbers to look good, kept pressuring Ellis and his colleagues for more “diversity.” Weaker and weaker students were accepted, students who had little aptitude for the kind of work expected of them. They were angry at finding out that they didn’t have what it took to earn a PhD and get on track for a professorship.

The lesson from Professor Ellis is this: Once a school chooses to deviate from purely academic norms, it will inevitably make larger and larger deviations until the old norms are but a faded memory.

Professor Heriot next contributes an essay entitled “A Dubious Expediency.” The title comes from a line written by California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk in the famous Bakke case. Many people are familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bakke, but few know that it reached the Court only after the California Supreme Court had ruled that racial preferences were unconstitutional. Its opinion was written by Justice Mosk, who was regarded as a liberal jurist par excellence.

Mosk was committed to civil rights and equally to equality before the law. The two were inseparable. So, when the state argued for racial preferences, Mosk replied that it would “call for the sacrifice of principle for the sake of dubious expediency and would represent a retreat in the struggle to assure each man and woman shall be judged based on individual merit alone.” For taking that position, Mosk would be reviled by his former liberal allies for the rest of his life, and even after.

Heriot’s essay shows that if the goal was to get more “underrepresented” students into good professional careers, racial preferences have been counterproductive.

Placing minority students who are relatively academically weak with better-prepared students in prestigious colleges does them no favor. In fact, it often leads them to drop out of more rigorous fields (math, science, engineering) and into softer, less demanding, and generally politicized majors. In sharp contrast, historically black institutions (where students are admitted on merit alone) have an excellent record of getting their undergraduates into top graduate and professional schools.

Instead of reconsidering racial preferences in light of the evidence, higher education leaders have chosen to bury the evidence and assail anyone who challenges their devotion to it.

That was the fate of a carefully researched book by Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber, Increasing Faculty Diversity. The authors argued that racial preferences, by luring the best minority students into top schools where they weren’t competitive and earned low grades, were keeping down the number who would complete their undergraduate studies and continue on with graduate school.

Increasing Faculty Diversity was studiously ignored because it conveyed a message that the education establishment didn’t want to hear. It’s been the same ever since with any research that disputes the claimed benefits of racial preferences.

In his essay, “Diversity’s Descent,” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, analyzes the different and sometimes conflicting concepts of diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, intersectionality, and equity. They contribute nothing to students’ education, yet universities cling to them. Why? Because, he explains,

universities now have very large bodies of administrators—most of them meagerly qualified members of minority groups—who owe their positions to the diversity doctrine. Any institutional retreat would set off massive protests and accusations of racism.

Attorney Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, focuses his essay on the strange phenomenon of racially segregated campus housing. College leaders say that they need racial preferences to create diversity but then readily consent to demands for separate housing for black students, Hispanics, Asians, and other groups.

Kirsanow thinks that this works at cross purposes with the supposed goal of an integrated, harmonious society, because separate living arrangements “contributes to a sense of grievance and radicalism.” But, he observes, many campus administrators seem to be happy with that.

In his powerful conclusion, Kirsanow writes,

 BIPOC—black, indigenous, people of color—has become the new buzzword, to be juxtaposed against “white”—people who have no color but are merely a homogeneous mass of oppressors. These attitudes and ideas are first inculcated in many students at colleges and universities, not least by the ethnic dorms and ethnic centers that teach non-white students that they must unite together against whites.

In what many readers will regard as the book’s most disturbing essay, Heather Mac Donald shows the harm that the diversity mania is doing in fields that you might think would be impervious to it—the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math).  But that’s not true. Like a virulent disease, racial preferences have invaded STEM and are eating away at its foundations.

The National Science Foundation has made the “woke” but absurd claim that scientific progress depends on having a “diverse STEM workforce.” The old days of just encouraging each individual with an interest in science to excel to the utmost of his or her ability must be swept away with programs aiming at “equity.”

You would expect a government bureaucracy to embrace such gauzy political rhetoric, but we find it lodged the universities, where the old rule (“hire the most qualified”) has given way to a new rule (“hire someone who is marginally qualified but adds to diversity”). In classes, individual effort is being replaced by group work so that all students can feel that they’ve excelled.

Mac Donald sums up the new reality:

No administrator, no regent, no academic dean or chair can open his mouth without professing fealty to diversity. It is the one constant in every university endeavor; it impinges on hiring, distorts the curriculum, and sucks up vast amounts of faculty time and taxpayer resources.

Medical and law schools are similarly succumbing to pressure to base decisions on “diversity” rather than individual merit. Here, accrediting agencies are giving a big push to academic administrators who are already quite inclined to do that. Accreditors are not much good at evaluating educational results, but they can look at diversity statistics and declare that “problems must be addressed.”

In “The Sausage Factory,” Professor Heriot and attorney Carissa Mulder examine the Supreme Court’s leading decisions on racial preferences. Although the Court has said that racial preferences must be subjected to “strict scrutiny” (a constitutional standard that used to be almost always fatal), in its racial preference cases, it has made a joke of that by choosing to defer to the supposed expertise of college officials. The authors argue that there is no justification for deference in favor of racial preferences and, if anything, the Court should defer to the American people on such a contentious matter.

Lance Izumi and Rowena Itchon of the Pacific Research Institute strongly make the case that admission preferences work against students who happen to be of Asian ancestry.

The book concludes with Maimom Schwarzschild’s examination of the arguments in favor of preferences not based on race, but rather on class. He concludes that such preferences wouldn’t be any more beneficial than are racial preferences.

A Dubious Expediency deserves a wide readership and in a rational country would be the subject of many debates.

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.