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Racial Preferences


An email: “I had a hard time understanding your post at 1215 this morning. Under *which* circumstances would you find racial preferences acceptable? It’s clear that racial preferences hurt *all* blacks, as described by Thomas Sowell and others. It’s that underqualified candidates regardless of their race are more likely to fail in such a situation. And they do. Just look at California’s higher ed system after AA was ‘abolished’. Blacks became more successful.

“The costs are also borne by graduates of Ivy League institutions through grade inflation–a direct result of race-based preferences. It’s one of the reasons I’d have a hard time sending my son to one of these schools; I’d like to get my money’s worth. Having my child be in the fat part of the bell curve and receive an A for it is a disservice to him and provides little incentive for smart students to try harder to earn the grade. . . .”

RP’s response: I agree, in part, with some of these arguments. I don’t believe that racial preferences are an important part of the grade-inflation story. Nor do I believe that preferences, on net, hurt all blacks (or all Hispanics)–indeed, the contention strikes me as silly. The idea that they hurt many students by mismatching them to campuses strikes me as an excellent reason for colleges and universities not to have them. There are others: For example, universities and colleges that engage in preferential programs constantly find themselves lying about it. (Some of these lies have infected the public debate about them, alas: Witness Ross Douthat’s treatment of a thumb on the scales giving a guy 0.2 extra GPA points as the paradigmatic case of university affirmative action.) But these do not strike me as reasons for the government to ban preferences.

Jonah’s hypothetical question is an interesting one: What would we think of not having a law that allowed colleges to discriminate against blacks? If people were free to denounce these colleges, to boycott them, and to refuse to hire their graduates, perhaps it would not be such a terrible thing to have one or two little obscure places indulging in this discrimination without being punished by the state. On this view, a ban on anti-black discrimination may have been necessary to help change a culture strongly influenced by state-enforced segregation, but could become less necessary once the culture changed. But given that the culture has, thankfully, changed, it strikes me as an awfully academic question.


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