CRB: The perversity of diversity

We continue our Christmas extravaganza previewing the Fall issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here and get immediate access to the issue online). To assess an extraordinary new book on affirmative action in higher education, the editors have called on the great Thomas Sowell. Sowell introduces the subject with a paragraph that could be chiseled in stone:

Anyone who follows public policy issues can easily think of policies that help one group at the expense of some other group. What is rarer, however, is a policy that on net balance harms all groups concerned, even if in very different ways. Affirmative action policies in the academic world can claim that rare distinction.

One of the books of the year is Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. To the vexing topic of affirmative action Sander and Taylor have added pathbreaking empirical research. Who better to review the book than the brilliant Thomas Sowell, himself a long-time analyst and formidable critic of affirmative action? Sowell writes:

There have been critics (including me) who have been saying that [affirmative action harms its intended beneficiaries] for some time. However, the devastating new book Mismatch, by Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., has so much overwhelming evidence on the harm done to students who are black, Hispanic, or from other “under-represented” minorities, that it will be hard for anyone with pretensions of honesty to be able to deny that painful fact.

But what can’t be denied can be ignored. It can be given the silent treatment by practitioners such as the institutions involved or by prominent supporters such as the New York Times, which has yet to recognize the existence of the book:

[A] highly successful strategy used by academic administrators and other defenders of racial preferences in higher education has been to simply ignore any and all evidence that goes against their policies or the assumptions behind those policies. Where academics or foundations control data sources, they often simply refuse to release the data to those with differing views. However, this latter strategy will now be like locking the barn door after the horses are gone. Sander and Taylor already have a decisive quantity and quality of hard data in their book.

Students placed in schools for which they lack the requisite qualifications face a discouraging uphill struggle to succeed. As the data presented in Mismatch show, where race is banned from admissions decisions, students attend schools for which they are better matched, resulting in fewer dropouts and increased graduation rates, even in the most difficult fields of study.

Sowell praises the difficult work Sander and Taylor performed in collecting data for their work from recalcitrant school administrators, and their compelling presentation of that data. He lauds the book as an “outstanding study.” Yet Sander and Taylor nevertheless advocate a practical middle ground of socioeconomic affirmative action that Sowell himself rejects:

An unequivocal legal ban on the use of race in college admissions seems to me a necessary, though not a sufficient, step toward putting an end to this educationally and socially pernicious practice. To say that race can be just “one factor” in college admissions decisions is to ma[k]e a judicious compromise in rhetoric while keeping the floodgates wide open in reality. From my own research for my book Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), I know that attempted restrictions on group preferences in other countries that leave the decision-makers wiggle room to factor in subjective considerations virtually guarantee that those subjective considerations will be used to offset objective differences in qualifications, in order to end up with the group numbers desired.

If and when there is an outright ban on using race in college and university admissions decisions, the next step should be a return to the once common practice of forbidding the submission of photographs or other things that permit racial identification. Some examination papers, as well as articles submitted to academic journals, are already being judged without any identifying information, in order to get unbiased decisions. There is no reason why the same practice cannot be followed with applications for college or university admissions. Affirmative action has already turned too many minority students with the potential for success into induced failures, because they were mismatched, quite aside from the racial polarization and academic corruption spawned by these programs.

Here there is no mismatch between book and reviewer. The CRB has pulled off a perfect match. For anyone interested in the subject, both the book and Sowell’s review are necessary reading.

Tomorrow: John O’Sullivan on Jeane Kirkpatrick.