Book of the Week: A Dubious Expediency

While we await word as to whether the Supreme Court will take up appeal of the case of Harvard’s blatant discrimination against Asians, we note the publication this week of A Dubious Expediency: How Race Preferences Damage Higher Education, a fine essay collection edited by Gail Heriot and Maimon Schwarzchild of the University of San Diego, and published by our friends at Encounter Books.

The title of the book—”a dubious expediency”—comes directly from the majority opinion of the California Supreme Court in the Bakke case in 1976 that struck down quota admissions at UC Davis medical school, and it is notable that the opinion was written by Justice Stanley Mosk, a liberal Democrat who had been California attorney general before being appointed to the California Supreme Court by Pat Brown. Mosk wrote:

To uphold the [argument for race-preferential admissions] would call for the sacrifice of principle for the sake of dubious expediency and would represent a retreat in the struggle to assure that each man and woman shall be judged based on individual merit alone, a struggle which has only lately achieved success in removing legal barriers to racial equality.

Needless to say, it is unthinkable that any liberal Democrat jurist would offer this argument today, because Democrats have all drunk the dubious expediency Kool Aid. (As it happens, the left attacked Mosk at the time.)

Gail Heriot’s chapter recalling Mosk’s opinion goes on to make out the deepest problem with race-based admissions:

But if anything can cause good-faith supporters [of race-based admissions] to stop and reconsider, it is the mounting empirical research showing that race-preferential admissions policies are doing more harm than good, even for their intended beneficiaries. If this research is right, we now have fewer, not more, African-American physicians, scientists, and engineers than we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies. We have fewer college professors, too, and likely fewer lawyers. Ironically, preferential treatment has made it more difficult for talented African-American and Hispanic students to enter high-prestige careers.

No one should want to support race-preferential admissions policies if their effects are precisely the opposite of what was hoped for.

Stanley Mosk wasn’t the only liberal once upon a time expressing doubts about race-based admissions. After the passage of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996 that banned race-based admissions, journalist James Traub wrote favorably of the results in the New York Times Magazine  in 1999. Some samples:

When the ban on the use of affirmative action enacted by the Board of Regents of the university and confirmed by voters in Proposition 209 went into effect, freshman minority enrollment at Berkeley had been cut by half. Conservatives had got their wish, but it had led to precisely the disaster predicted by affirmative action’s backers. It wouldn’t have been surprising, then, if preferences were a roaring issue on campus. I asked a student if the Defend Affirmative Action Party had a chance of winning a seat in this spring’s elections in the student government. He consulted a friend. ”Not really,” he said. A poll taken at the time of Prop. 209 showed that in fact most students opposed affirmative action. . .

Ending affirmative action on campus has had many fewer nightmarish effects in California than you might have thought from the initial returns. Many, though scarcely all, of the minority students who didn’t get in to Berkeley or U.C.L.A. the first year after Prop. 209 was passed enrolled instead at one of the less selective U.C. campuses, including Irvine, Santa Cruz and Riverside — a phenomenon known in the affirmative action world as ”cascading.”. . .  Liberals think that cascading represents a terrible denial of opportunity, and conservatives think that fiddling undermines the principle of merit. The question is whether the new dispensation is preferable to the old one. The answer is yes. . .

I met a surprising number of students who, like Wright or Coleman [minority students], had got into fancier schools but had chosen to enroll at Riverside, and none of them had come to regret it. A black student named Mark Thomas told me that he had been accepted at U.C.L.A., Berkeley, Yale and Princeton, but that he had chosen Riverside because it was much cheaper than the Ivy Leagues and had offered scholarship money unavailable at the other U.C. schools. Thomas was majoring in biochemistry. ”This year,” he said, ”I’ve already spent two and a half to three hours with my academic adviser; I’ve heard that the average at other places is about half an hour.”

Traub went on at length to explain how all of California’s universities were making greater effort to identify and place capable minority high school students that they had previously overlooked.

Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley scholar and a leading authority on affirmative action, calls the rollback ”the biggest negative redistribution of educational opportunity in the history of the country.” Technically, that may be true. But the sky-is-falling position assumes both that elite institutions will not have significant minority representation without preferences and that students who descend a tier in educational prestige will suffer a devastating loss. And both those assumptions seem hyperbolic. . .

What about those who do cascade downward — what kind of harms will they suffer? None, say many conservatives. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of ”America in Black and White,” write that historically black colleges produce more black engineers and doctors than all of the Ivies and the other great universities. In a critique of ”The Shape of the River,” Martin Trow, an emeritus professor at Berkeley and a prominent critic of affirmative action, writes, ”The notion that you have to go to one of the most selective universities to fulfill your potential, or to become a leader in America, betrays an elitist conception of American life.” . . .

Mark Thomas, the black biochemistry student at Riverside, agrees. ”The model of affirmative action is better here,” he told me. ”It’s more a question of getting you in, and once you’re here we’re going to try to make you succeed. The other way is, ‘We can get you in, but we don’t think you’re going to be able to do the work.”’

Two concluding observations: Traub’s explorations into the “mismatch hypothesis” have been amply confirmed by the subsequent research summarized in A Dubious Expediency. Second, and needless to say, the New York Times Magazine would never publish an article like this today. It would make their woke staff feel “unsafe” and sad.

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