Let me say upfront that I respect the intentions of those who defend affirmative action. Many of them sincerely believe that race-based preferences, as practiced by schools and universities, serve to increase minority representation, promote diversity, and provide a remedy for historical injustices.
But although I respect the good intentions of those who promote affirmative action, I fear that affirmative action policies are often counterproductive. In my view, the numbers suggest that the most obvious beneficiaries of affirmative action are white.
Let me explain.
Affirmative action policies often involve the unchallenged, but questionable assumption that every institution should generally have a white majority, or at least a white plurality. These policies assume that once an institution has accepted a “critical mass” of each minority group (since quotas are taboo), it has satisfied its “diversity” goal. And once this “diversity” goal has been achieved, white applicants usually inherit the remaining majority of seats.
Consider college admissions. For the recently-enrolled class of 2016, whites were approximately 57 percent of new students at Yale, 56 percent at Harvard, and 58 percent at Princeton. Meanwhile, Cornell proudly announced, in an online article titled “Class of 2016: smart, more diverse, with a female majority,” that “39.8 percent of the Class of 2016 identifies as non-Caucasian.”
Does that tell us something about the remaining 60.2 percent?
Thus, we have an ironic situation where institutions that claim to promote “diversity,” despite their sincere intentions, appear to limit minorities to a minority of seats. Conversely, this results in an apparent entrenchment of white majorities.
In contrast, race-blind admission policies enable greater representation for minorities. At Stuyvesant High, where entrance is determined by an admissions test, whites form 24 percent of the student body. At Berkeley, which practices race-blind admissions, white enrollment for the 2011-2012 year was 27 percent. At Caltech that year, white enrollment was 35 percent.
This suggests a paradox. If schools like Stuyvesant High, Berkeley, and Caltech were forced to adopt “diversity” policies similar to some Ivy League institutions, black enrollment would probably increase to only about 10 or 15 percent, while white enrollment would probably double to more than 50 or 60 percent.
In a sense, affirmative action’s primary effect isn’t that less-qualified blacks might be replacing more-qualified whites, but that less-qualified whites might be replacing more-qualified minorities. For instance, it has long been documented that Asian-Americans need higher SAT scores than their white counterparts to get into top colleges. One study even suggested that on the old 1600-point SAT scale, “Asian-Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students, all other quantifiable variables being equal, to get into elite schools.”
How to explain this white-Asian admissions gap? One plausible counterargument is that Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy League schools look for leadership, extra-curricular achievements, and other “soft factors” in addition to test scores. On its face, this argument is appealing because it defines “merit” to include not just test scores, but also other intangible factors that relate to an applicant’s talents, character, and ability to overcome adversity.
But although the “soft factors” argument might explain the gap in minority admissions between Yale and Stuyvesant (where admissions is score-based), it doesn’t adequately explain the gap between Yale and Berkeley, or Yale and Caltech. After all, Berkeley and Caltech also take “soft factors” into close account. And given that the average high school student applies to at least nine colleges, and that ambitious students often apply to 15 or even 20 colleges, chances are that schools like Yale and Berkeley would be evaluating many of the same applicants with the same essays, leadership experiences, extracurricular accomplishments, and other “soft factors.”
Do Asian-Americans systemically send inferior versions of their applications to Yale, Harvard, or Princeton—while sending superior versions to Berkeley and Caltech?
Another possible counterargument is that east coast schools like Yale, Harvard, Princeton and other Ivy League schools receive a disproportionate number of applications from whites, and thus are forced to admit a predominantly white student body. But this counterargument also seems unconvincing. First, the proportion of minority students applying tells us nothing about the quality of their applications. Second, it is hard to make the claim that there is a severe shortage of minorities—especially Asians—applying to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other top schools. And third, we have the counterexample of MIT, whose class of 2016 was only 37 percent white. And MIT is right next to Harvard.
Conservatives often argue that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination.” But why call it “reverse?”
We see a related phenomenon in male-female enrollment in some (although not all) colleges. Although girls frequently outperform boys in high school, affirmative action and “diversity” goals in college admission often favor boys because of the unchallenged assumption that boys must be “proportionately” represented—i.e., that boys represent approximately half the student body. As a result, girls are limited to a slight majority of seats that hovers around 60-plus percent at best, even if the girls’ higher grades, higher SAT scores, and extracurricular achievements would warrant greater female representation. For instance, Washington Post journalist Valerie Strauss points out that female applicants to the College of William and Mary outnumber male applicants by almost 2-to-1. Moreover, female applicants are admitted at a much lower rate than males.
Given the race and gender effects that we’ve considered, is it not possible that for some admissions cycles for some schools, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action might be—white males?
Surely there must be a better way to promote racial equality.
Meritocracy gives minority groups the chance to excel in, and sometimes dominate, new fields. In the 1940s, basketball was a predominantly white sport—as a 1946 photo of the New York Knicks might easily attest. But today in the 21st century, African-Americans represent over 75 percent of NBA players. As writer Dinesh D’Souza notes, “Presumably […] it is merit that is producing this racially disproportionate result. If coaches are picking the best dribblers and passers and shooters, then who cares if one group has more players and another group has less?”
In contrast, had the NBA maintained a “diversity” policy similar to what some colleges have today, basketball teams would probably be mainly white, with only a “critical mass” of Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans. In that case, would the NBA still have superstars like LeBron James and Jeremy Lin?
Meritocracy, not affirmative action, is probably the more practical approach for promoting racial equality. Society should increase funding for reading programs, summer camps, pre-college preparation, and other educational opportunities that give minorities opportunities to work with whites on an equal basis. While affirmative action often results (ironically) in the entrenchment of white majorities, meritocracy offers minorities real opportunities to achieve real equality.
This autumn, as the Supreme Court hears Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, I hope that the wise judges of the Court will vote to abolish affirmative action and racial preferences. In my mind, such a ruling would be one of the greatest victories for racial equality since Brown v. Board of Education.
Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays.