The Washington Post and New York Times have each editorialized this week in favor of allowing the University of Texas to discriminate on the basis of race in its undergraduate admissions. Neither editorial is persuasive.
The Post’s pitch boils down to an endorsement of Justice Lewis Powell’s argument in the 1978 Bakke case, that the country’s future depends on exposing prospective leaders “to ideas and mores of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples.”
There are two problems with this argument. First, why should skin color be used as a proxy for “ideas,” let alone “mores”? The problem with using such a proxy — which would be called stereotyping in any other context — is exacerbated by the fact that, in admission to selective schools, the overwhelming majority of those given preferential treatment come from backgrounds indistinguishable from their other-colored counterparts. For example, William Bowen and Derek Bok, in their pro-preference bible The Shape of the River, acknowledge that 86 percent of the African Americans admitted to the selective schools they study come from upper- or middle-class backgrounds.
The second problem with the Post’s reasoning is that it fails to acknowledge that, even if there are some dubious “educational benefits” to using racial preferences in order to ensure that some random interracial conversations take place, those benefits must be weighed against the inherent costs of such discrimination. I listed those costs in another Corner post this week. Can there really be any doubt that these costs overwhelm any benefits in a dorm bull session about “mores”?
The Times editorial is even weaker. By endorsing racial preferences because they purportedly “enlarge opportunities for historically disfavored groups,” it ignores the fact that Justice Powell in Bakke and subsequent Court decisions have rejected this broad remedial argument — and rightly so. Not only is the typical beneficiary now not “disfavored” (see above), but Asians — who are as “historically disfavored” as, say, Latinos — are typically discriminated against. What’s more, there is now overwhelming evidence that the supposed beneficiaries of racial preferences actually suffer a diminution in opportunities — are set up for failure — when they are admitted to schools with lower academic qualifications than the rest of the student body. This mismatching also makes it less likely that schools can claim to be, in the Times’ words, “putting together a class of students who can learn from each other.” Indeed, in a student body where whites and Asians were systematically held to higher admission standards than African Americans and Latinos, stereotypes are more likely to be strengthened than weakened.