The Corner

A Devastating Affirmative-Action Failure

The Los Angeles Times recently published a devastating case study in the malign effects of academic racial preferences. The University of California, Berkeley, followed the diversocrat playbook to the letter in admitting Kashawn Campbell, a South Central Los Angeles high-school senior, in 2012: It disregarded his level of academic preparation, parked him in the black dorm — the “African American Theme Program” — and provided him with a black-studies course.

The results were thoroughly predictable. After his first semester, reports the Times:

[Kashawn] had barely passed an introductory science course. In College Writing 1A, his essays — pockmarked with misplaced words and odd phrases — were so weak that he would have to take the class again.

His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for [College Writing] and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” [his instructor] said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

His grade-point average was 1.7, putting him at risk of expulsion if he didn’t raise it by the end of the year. The one bright spot in his academic record? Why, African American Studies 5A, of course! Kashawn had received an A on an essay and a B on a midterm, the best grades of his freshman year:

Kashawn reveled in the class [a survey of black culture and race relations], in a way he hadn’t since high school. He would often be the first one to speak up in discussions, even though his points weren’t always the most sophisticated, said Gabrielle Williams, a doctoral student who helped teach the class.

He still had gaps in his knowledge of history. But, Williams said, “you could see how engaged he was, how much he loved being there.”

Did Kashawn’s good grades in African American Studies 5A mean that he had suddenly learned how to think and to write? Not at all. He was advancing little in his second go-round at expository writing:  “On yet another failing essay, the instructor wrote how surprised she was at his lack of progress, especially, she noted, given the hours they’d spent going over his ‘extremely long, awkward and unclear sentences.’”

His (to him) unforeseen academic struggles took a psychological toll:

He had never felt this kind of failure, nor felt this insecure. . . . Each poor grade [was] another stinging punch bringing him closer to flunking out. None of the adults in his life knew the depth of his pain: not his professors, his counselors, any of the teachers at his old high school.

He tries to rally his spirits with heart-wrenching pathos: “‘I can do this! I can do this!’ he had written [in a diary]. ‘Let the studying begin! . . . It’s time for Kashawn’s Comeback!’”

A counselor in the campus psychologist’s office urged him to scale back his academic ambitions. “Maybe he didn’t have to be the straight-A kid he’d been in high school anymore,” the counselor advised him. This “be content with mediocrity” message is hardly a recipe for future success, but it sums up the attitude that many a struggling affirmative-action “beneficiary” has adopted to get through college.

The black-themed dorm and student center also operated exactly as one would expect, confirming their members’ belief in their own racial oppression:

“Sometimes we feel like we’re not wanted on campus,” Kashawn said, surrounded at a dinner table by several of his dorm mates, all of them nodding in agreement. “It’s usually subtle things, glances or not being invited to study groups. Little, constant aggressions.”

Of course, the only reason that Kashawn and many of his fellow dorm mates are at Berkeley is because the administration “wants” them so much, regardless of their chances of success. It is unlikely, however, that African American Studies 5A discussed the academic-achievement gap in Berkeley’s admissions between black, white, and Asian students. That gap, not racism, explains why Kashawn is not a sought-after addition to study groups. (Kashawn came to Berkeley through one of the University of California’s many desperate efforts to evade California’s ban on governmental racial preferences: an admissions guarantee for students in the top decile of their high school classes, regardless of their test scores or the caliber of their school.)

Kashawn is on tenterhooks waiting to learn if his second-semester grades will allow him to continue into sophomore year. Which course gave him an A–, to pull his GPA over the top? Hint: It wasn’t College Writing.

The Times could not have written a more resounding confirmation of mismatch theory if it had tried. (The paper’s motivations for the story remain mysterious, since the Times is conventionally liberal on race matters.) Mismatch theory, most recently expounded by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, is the most powerful critique of affirmative action yet developed, demonstrating empirically that students admitted to academic environments for which they are ill prepared learn less, and are less likely to pursue rigorous majors, than had they been enrolled in schools where their peers shared their level of academic preparation.

But the Times story conveys a subtler point as well: Racial preferences are not just ill advised, they are positively sadistic. Only the preening self-regard of University of California administrators and faculty is served by such an admissions travesty. Preference practitioners are willing to set their “beneficiaries” up to fail and to subject them to possible emotional distress, simply so that the preference dispensers can look out upon their “diverse” realm and know that they are morally superior to the rest of society.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?

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