Bench Memos

Yet Another Sunday NYT Op-Ed Trying to Salvage Racial Preferences

For the second week in a row, the Sunday New York Times is running an op-ed that tries to salvage using racial preferences in university admissions. This time, the author tries to minimize the severity of the “mismatch” problem in admissions — that is, setting up African-American and Latino students for failure by admitting them to schools where their academic qualifications are signicantly below other students’, when those same black and Hispanic students might well thrive were they to go to schools where their qualifications were on par with the other students’. Here’s the response (expanded and edited slightly) I posted on the Times’ website:

I’ll leave it to others to decide how severe the “mismatch” problem is (I think it’s quite severe).  But I would make two points.

First, this op-ed begins and ends by stating that the purpose of affirmative action is remedial (“From school admissions to hiring, affirmative action policies attempt to compensate for this country’s brutal history of racial discrimination by giving some minority applicants a leg up,” and “In essence, affirmative action is about how to fairly distribute opportunity after our long history of racial discrimination”).  It is true that this is the only justification that anyone actually believes, but the trouble is that the Supreme Court has rejected it, and rightly so, since race is a poor proxy for disadvantage in 2013 (how does it justify, btw, giving Latinos a preference over Asians?). There are plenty of disavantaged whites and Asians, and plenty of advantaged blacks and Latinos (indeed 86 percent of the African Americans admitted to the more selective schools come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, according to The Shape of the River by William Bowen & Derek Bok). Instead, the University of Texas is arguing that its use of racial preferences is justified because white and Asian students will learn so much from black and Latino students in random interracial conversations (as I said, no one really believes this).

Second, whatever the severity of the mismatch problem — and, again, I believe it’s very severe indeed — it is only one of the many costs of using racial preferences, and together they overwhelm any benefit from those random interracial conversations: 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 encourages separatism; 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 and encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; 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.

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