When ra­cial pref­er­ences do harm

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - Re­viewed by Robert Ver­bruggen


on­ser­va­tives are al­ways look­ing for their holy grail of so­cial sci­ence: em­pir­i­cal proof that lib­eral poli­cies do more harm than good. If Charles Mur­ray was right in “Los­ing Ground” and wel­fare ac­tu­ally makes the poor worse off, the de­bate is over — no one wants to do that.

For years now, Richard H. San­der of UCLA has been float­ing around a the­ory of this type for af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. In “Mis­match,” co-au­thored by jour­nal­ist Stu­art Tay­lor Jr., Mr. San­der brings to­gether all the ev­i­dence he can find that ra­cial pref­er­ences don’t help the peo­ple they’re sup­posed to help.

The idea of mis­match is not hard to un­der­stand. Some col­leges are more se­lec­tive than oth­ers, and col­leges that are more se­lec­tive also tend to be more rig­or­ous.

At top col­leges, pro­fes­sors as­sume students are pre­pared to keep up with a steady stream of chal­leng­ing new ma­te­rial.

Usu­ally, this as­sump­tion is cor­rect, be­cause univer­sity ad­mis­sions de­part­ments are good at pick­ing the very best ap­pli­cants. How­ever, about 25 per­cent of col­lege students at­tend schools that use ra­cial pref­er­ences.

(The other schools typ­i­cally are not very se­lec­tive to be­gin with.)

At the most se­lec­tive in­sti­tu­tions, ra­cial pref­er­ences tend to be in­cred­i­bly strong, to the point that there isn’t much over­lap in test scores be­tween black students and white ones. His­pan­ics tend to get less pref­er­ence than blacks, and Asians are dis­crim­i­nated against, some­times se­verely.

Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, in other words, is tak­ing black and some­times His­panic students who are per­fectly qual­i­fied to at­tend col­lege and plac­ing them in schools where their peers are much more ad­vanced. One would imag­ine these students would get lower grades than their peers, would be more likely to drop out and would be more likely to leave chal­leng­ing ma­jors for softer ones that won’t be as use­ful in the job mar­ket.

Great the­ory, but where’s the proof? That’s the big prob­lem: Academia is no­to­ri­ously cagey when it comes to ra­cial pref­er­ences. If a critic says af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is un­fair, academia replies that it’s not so bad — it’s just a “tiebreaker,” or maybe a lit­tle “boost.”

If a critic sug­gests elim­i­nat­ing pref­er­ences, academia replies that this would de­stroy mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment num­bers, sug­gest­ing that pref­er­ences are quite strong in­deed.

If a critic asks for the data, academia tells him to shove it. It’s of­ten dif­fi­cult to tell how strong ra­cial pref­er­ences are at any given school, let alone how students ad­mit­ted un­der pref­er­en­tial poli­cies fare dur­ing their four years on cam­pus. As a re­sult, “Mis­match” can feel cob­bled to­gether at times.

Most read­ers will long for a com­pre­hen­sive data set to end the de­bate.

Nonethe­less, what Mr. San­der and Mr. Tay­lor have ac­com­plished here is in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive.

The authors have done an ex­cel­lent job of pulling to­gether the avail­able re­search, and Mr. San­der in par­tic­u­lar has been dogged in his pur­suit of fresh num­bers.

He’s even used law­suits and Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests to ex­tract data from ad­mis­sions de­part­ments.

Mr. San­der sum­ma­rizes the ex­cel­lent re­search he’s done on law schools, for ex­am­ple. Black students ad­mit­ted un­der ra­cial pref­er­ences tend to drop out at much higher rates than black students who at­tend schools that match their qual­i­fi­ca­tions, and black law school grad­u­ates are far more likely than whites to fail their bar exam. By Mr. San­der’s es­ti­ma­tion, more blacks would suc­ceed in be­com­ing lawyers if they at­tended schools that would ac­cept them with­out pref­er­ences.

A sim­i­lar ef­fect also seems clear in STEM fields (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math). While mi­nori­ties are just as in­ter­ested in these fields as whites, they fail dis­pro­por­tion­ately when they at­tend se­lec­tive schools. The data show that in these fields, a stu­dent’s prepa­ra­tion rel­a­tive to that of his peers is es­pe­cially im­por­tant — a stu­dent who is ca­pa­ble of flour­ish­ing at a mid­dle-tier school may very well fail if he’s ad­mit­ted to Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

The authors also take a look at the ef­fects of Propo­si­tion 209, the Cal­i­for­nia bal­lot ini­tia­tive that briefly elim­i­nated ra­cial pref­er­ences in the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem.

(Prop 209 is still in ef­fect, but schools have found ways to get around it.)

When Prop 209 first went into ef­fect, pref­er­ence sup­port­ers pointed out de­clin­ing mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment, par­tic­u­larly at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­ni­aLos Angeles and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley.

A deeper look at the data tells a dif­fer­ent story. Mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment rose at three of the sys­tem’s cam­puses and hardly changed at two more. Mi­nor­ity grad­u­a­tion rates swelled — more than can­cel­ing out the ef­fect of lower ad­mis­sions, mean­ing the sys­tem was grad­u­at­ing more mi­nori­ties than it was pre­vi­ously. Mi­nor­ity ap­pli­cants who were ac­cepted were more likely to at­tend than they had been. Also, ap­pli­ca­tions from blacks and His­pan­ics ac­tu­ally rose, sug­gest­ing they were not dis­suaded by the lack of pref­er­ences.

Mr. San­der and Mr. Tay­lor, of course, have their share of crit­ics, and “Mis­match” will not be the last word on this sub­ject.

But they have put the na­tion’s uni­ver­si­ties in a putup-or-shut-up sit­u­a­tion:

They can ei­ther ad­mit that pref­er­ences do harm, or they can re­lease the data that prove oth­er­wise. Robert Ver­Bruggen is a deputy manag­ing ed­i­tor of Na­tional Re­view.

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