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Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide Hardcover – November 20, 2012
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This is a long book with a recurring theme: affirmative action policies are not accomplishing the purposes for which they were designed. Citing Thomas Sowell, the author distinguishes between ‘policies’ and ‘crusades’. Affirmative action is one of the former, but it is often considered one of the latter. A policy should be judged on its costs, benefits and the degree to which it meets its goals. Considered in this light, affirmative action has not accomplished what many hoped it would. A crusade, on the other hand, is something else again. It asks the question, ‘are you on the side of God or the enemy?’ Costs, benefits and goals fall by the wayside and the tests become emotional and ideological. The fact that affirmative action has often been perceived as a crusade has made it difficult for policy makers to examine it dispassionately.
The author wants minority students to succeed and thrive, but he does not believe that current practices are contributing positively to those goals. What is affirmative action? For some it means outreach—attracting students, making them aware of opportunities, and so on. Most Americans are strongly supportive of this activity. For others it means numbers—attempting to secure a 6-8% African-American cohort in university classes. The latter’s strategies include admission preferences. Most Americans oppose such practices; hence they are described euphemistically by their supporters and the facts concerning the actual practices are suppressed.
The principal problem with admissions preferences is the issue of mismatch. Princeton admits minority students whose grades and SAT scores indicate admissibility to the University of Michigan. Michigan admits students whose numbers would place them at the State University of New York. The State University of New York admits students whose numbers would justify admission to a regional public institution, and so on. Students who would succeed at Rutgers are instead matriculating at Amherst; students who would succeed at Occidental are matriculating at Stanford, and so on.
The SAT number differentials are stark. At some institutions, e.g., African-American students’ numbers are 300 points lower than white students’, 450 points lower than Asian-American students’. The same is true for differential scores on the LSAT’s and MCAT’s. This results in a series of problems.
Affirmative action frequently relies on the theory of ‘contact’ advantage, i.e., there will be clear advantages to an institution as a whole if majority students come in contact with minority students. They will understand one another, like one another, form friendships with one another and reduce preexisting prejudices with regard to one another. Majority students will benefit from the wisdom, experience and cultural perspective of minority students. This seems like a worthy goal. However, if the minority students are mismatched with the institution and they are consistently one standard deviation less-skilled than the majority students, something else will happen. The minority students will be perceived as less-skilled in general and they will be perceived as occupying places that have been denied to the majority students’ high school friends and classmates with stronger grades and SAT scores. This will result in resentment rather than acceptance.
This macro issue is discussed at length, utilizing a wealth of contemporary social science research from all points on the political spectrum. For example, minority students who receive admission preferences underperform at white-majority institutions, whereas they perform at the levels predicted by their grades and SAT scores at HBUC institutions. They perceive themselves to be less skilled than their majority classmates and this reduces their confidence and self-esteem. At the same time, they feel that they can count on admissions preferences for, e.g., graduate and professional schools and are not as motivated to study and work hard as a result.
The overarching mismatch argument leans on the research of law professor Richard Sander, though the so-called mismatch hypothesis was explored as early as the 1960’s and restated by Thomas Sowell in the 1980’s. Sander has argued that the mismatches in law school admission have resulted in higher failure rates, lower bar exam passage rates and, in general, the loss of 8% of possible African-American lawyers.
Affirmative action policies were originally formulated as part of an attempt to bring inner-city students into the middle class. They have failed to do this, as, e.g., Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have noted. They now principally benefit the African-American middle- and upper-middle class, who have long escaped the inner city and whose parents are often highly-educated professionals. Meanwhile, those in the inner city continue to languish.
In the course of the book, the author challenges the conclusions of Bok and Bowen’s The Shape of the River study (as well as the two succeeding ‘river’ studies funded by the Mellon Foundation). His arguments are lucid and extensive.
This book actually consists of a series of disconnected pieces—previously-published articles, a response to a colleague’s research, etc. The result, however, is seamless (if, sometimes, a bit repetitive). The book is very readable, the arguments clear. This strikes me as an excellent example of the kind of research that will be necessary if we are to achieve commonly agreed-upon goals. The author says at several points that he will ‘pull no punches’. He is quite explicit in both his arguments and criticisms. His overarching goal, however, is to offer analysis that can lead to student success and not bring unintended negative consequences. Current failure rates, underperformance, indebtedness and other issues suggest that we have not yet ‘exhausted our creativity’ and that a great deal of work remains to be done, work that will require us to challenge our current assumptions and practices.