Affirmative action is once again before the Supreme Court. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, arose from the usual scenario: A white student applied to the university but was denied admission, while black applicants with weaker academic credentials were admitted because of racial preferences designed to favor minorities.
It’s no mystery why Abigail Fisher, the rejected student in this case, would object to that racial double standard and take her protest all the way to the Supreme Court. But why does the University of Texas embrace such a double standard?
For decades, America’s public colleges have been using race as an explicit criterion in admissions — so explicit that affirmative action often amounts to de facto racial quotas. What justifies such discrimination, the schools say, is the boon of “diversity.” They have to say that. Ever since the Supreme Court’s landmark Bakke decision in 1978, racial preferences have been deemed constitutional only if their avowed purpose is to secure the educational benefit of a diverse student body. In a Wall Street Journal column last week, the president of UT-Austin, Gregory Fenves, attested to his institution’s exemplary motives.
“Educating students in an environment as diverse as the United States,” Fenves wrote, “is one of the most effective ways to ensure that all students succeed in, and contribute to, the real world when they leave campus.”
In fact, such lofty pedagogical concerns have little to do with the actual drivers of affirmative action. What really underlies racial preferences is politics — “the day-to-day business of reporting to the state legislature, qualifying for federal and foundation grants, romancing potential donors, marketing the school to potential students . . . and appeasing interest groups,’’ argue Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow, members of the US Commission on Civil Rights, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Fisher case.
Why does that matter? Because the Constitution guarantees every American “equal protection of the laws.” Only for the most compelling reason can racial preferences be allowed to trump that guarantee. That reason was supposed to be the extraordinary educational benefits of diversity. But if that’s a pretext — if race-based affirmative action isn’t actually benefiting all students at a university — then how can discrimination be tolerated?
What particularly concerns Heriot and Kirsanow is the substantial body of empirical evidence demonstrating that affirmative action hurts the students it’s intended to help. Their brief discusses the problem of “mismatch.” That is the term for what happens when an elite institution relaxes its usual standards to admit more racial minorities, thereby encouraging black students to enter schools where they are apt to be academically weaker than their peers. The result is that students admitted through affirmative action tend to cluster near the bottom of their entering cohort, to have lower grades and higher drop-out rates, and to more frequently abandon rigorous courses or switch to less demanding majors.
An important 2012 book by legal scholars Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. delved into the “mismatch’’ phenomenon in sober detail. There is little doubt that racial preferences have backfired, leaving the nation with fewer black doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and professors than would otherwise be the case. There was some politically-correct hyperventilating when Justice Antonin Scalia asked about this research during the Fisher oral argument this month.
But there is nothing outrageous in asking about “mismatch,” or in seriously confronting the harm it has caused. Racial preferences have held back far too many minority students. The sooner those preferences are scrapped, the more success black students will achieve.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.