An article of faith among leftists is that we must give preferences to certain “underrepresented” racial and ethnic groups when it comes to college admissions. Supposedly, doing so helps to get more members of those groups into “the mainstream.” That this approach might not work or even be counterproductive are thoughts that are verboten.

On October 29, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal hosted University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot, who explained why racial preferences have damaged American higher education. You can read her talk here.

One of Professor Heriot’s most intriguing points was that we could easily have avoided the many problems associated with racial preferences if we had only listened to Justice Stanley Mosk of the California Supreme Court. He wrote the court’s opinion when the Bakke case came before it in 1976. Mosk was a highly regarded jurist with a strong civil rights record, but he foresaw trouble if we started dividing Americans into favored and non-favored groups. In his opinion, Justice Mosk called it “a dubious expediency.” (Professor Heriot borrowed that phrase for the title of her recent book on racial preferences.) Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court would open the door to racial preferences when it decided Bakke and has opened it wider with its subsequent decisions. We would have avoided a great deal of trouble if the Court had listened to Justice Mosk.

Among the troubles that soon emerged from preferences was racial division and animosity.  Heriot stated,

One such warning came from the demands—starting in the late 1960s—for racial separatism on campus. African American students who were part of affirmative action programs at schools like Cornell, MIT, and Yale demanded separate dormitories. As time went on the demands included separate student lounges, and separate graduation ceremonies, and sometimes specially designed academic departments or programs.

Bad sign. Things were going in the opposite direction from what was intended—and would eventually devolve into demands for safe spaces.

She also discussed the “mismatch” problem that preferences cause—namely how they put favored minority students into competition with academically better prepared white and Asian students. As a result, many of the “beneficiaries” of preferences find themselves struggling in their coursework; often they switch away from the demanding fields and into “soft” ones where they will do better. Those fields, however, don’t have nearly the career prospects as the more demanding ones. Her conclusion is that we would have more black engineers, doctors, and professors if it weren’t for racial preferences. 

Finally, Heriot encourages other states to do what California did in 1996 (and reaffirmed last year), namely to rule out racial preferences by the state government and insist that citizens be treated as individuals, not as group representatives.

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