In academia’s unending effort to provide some justification for racial and ethnic admissions preferences, yet another social-science study has been produced, this one finding “a positive impact on racial attitudes from students who are exposed to those of other races and ethnicities.” The quote is from the article in today’s Inside Higher Ed, and after the jump is what I’ve posted in response.
By the way, on my first point below — that preferences actually undermine the intended message to a potential bigot that other-race students are just as smart as he is, since on a campus using such preferences, the other-race students most likely will not be as smart as he is — see especially Part VI of this study by Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai (published by the Center for Equal Opportunity).
Not New, Not Persuasive
A few thoughts:
1. This is a variation on an old argument: That is, that preferences can help break down stereotypes by showing otherwise likely bigots that we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin. I’m skeptical that this antiracist message — which, after all, is enshrined in our laws and inescapable in our popular culture — so needs an additional push that it justifies (paradoxically) racial discrimination. But even if it did, one would suppose that, for it to work on a particular campus, it would be important that the potential bigots not be housed with members of other races who are systematically chosen with lower academic qualifications: That would encourage the potential bigots to conclude that, gee, maybe these folks really aren’t as smart as we are. But, of course, that’s exactly what happens on campuses that use racial preferences in admissions. It’s interesting, in this regard, that the campus chosen for the experiment — UCLA — is one where racial preferences in admissions are forbidden.
2. If you’re serious about all this, then you apparently have to be less serious about freedom of association. You can’t allow students to pick their roommates or their other social groups. That’s yet another cost that has to be weighed against any potential benefits (see item 4, below).
3. In this regard, I’m sympathetic to the suggestion that universities rethink their support of racially defined organizations; unfortunately, the study also seems to suggest that universities support only student organizations that themselves have a politically correct racial and ethnic mix, which is a bad idea. Yet, given the way universities are run, I suspect what would happen is that they would compromise by continuing to fund the black/Latino/Asian/Native-American/Arab-American student unions but cutting off funding to any fraternity that was “too white.”
4. As always, you must weigh costs against benefits. Here, according to the article, are the supposed benefits: “statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one’s own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups.” Very nice for those students who have an other-race roomie, but here are the costs for everyone else of using racial preferences in admissions: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and actually encourages separatism (which the study rightly criticizes); it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.
5. In sum: Given all these costs, it simply doesn’t make sense, not even to Rube Goldberg, to use racial preferences in admissions because they make it easier for universities to have dorm-room quotas that in turn may have some possible but relatively minor social benefits that can be and are being realized already in other ways.