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A Great Leap Backward

Crossposted from Philanthropy Daily:

It looks like this nation is taking a giant step backwards in the field of racial preferences. On Friday, the Obama administration issued a letter to college and university presidents, urging them, in the words of The New York Times, to “get creative” in their promotion of racial diversity. The new guidelines offer college administrators ways to essentially skirt the Supreme Court rulings on racial preferences. The Times offers a useful side-by-side comparison of the Bush administration guidelines for this issue and Obama’s:

Where the Bush administration’s letter in 2008 states, “Quotas are impermissible,” the 2011 version says “an institution may permissibly aim to achieve a critical mass of underrepresented students.” Even in addressing the same principles, the framework is practically reversed. Obama guidelines: “Institutions are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable.” Bush guidelines: “Before using race, there must be a serious good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives.”

In defense of these new guidelines, Attorney General Eric Holder invokes the diverse learning environment defense that was used first by Justice Lewis Powell in the 1978 Bakke decision and then later by the majority of the court in Grutter v. Bollinger. Holder says:

Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.

The only problem is that there is no more evidence for this assertion now than there was when this dubious theory was first put forth. Having different colored faces in a single classroom does not bring educational benefits or make anyone more tolerant. I was particularly interested to read that even some rather apolitical folks had come to this conclusion. The authors of the book Nurture Shock (2009), a guide to some of the latest scientific studies on children and their attitudes and behaviors, conclude in an exhaustive chapter on race that diverse learning environments do absolutely nothing to change students’ racial attitudes. Children tend to self-segregate even when they attend the most diverse, liberal, tolerant schools.

While there is not much evidence to support the idea that racial preferences bring benefits to anyone, there is plenty of evidence (more now than at the time of the Michigan decisions) to support the idea that such preferences bring great harm to racial minorities. California’s elimination of racial preferences a few years ago has proved to be an invaluable test case. In a column last week, George Will presents a rundown of this new research, which has been submitted to the Supreme Court, as it considers whether to take up yet another affirmative action case. Will cites a legal brief by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and legal analyst Stuart Taylor and summarizes it:

“Academic mismatch” causes many students who are admitted under a substantial preference based on race, but who possess weaker academic skills, to fall behind. The consequences include especially high attrition rates from the sciences, and self-segregation in less-demanding classes, thereby reducing classroom diversity. Blacks are significantly more integrated across the University of California system than they were before the state eliminated racial preferences in 1996, thereby discouraging enrollment of underprepared minorities in the more elite institutions.

Supporters of racial preferences believe academic mismatch is simply a myth. They continue to observe the failure of blacks who have been the beneficiaries of racial preferences and yet always have a new excuse for why we just need to double down on affirmative action. This week’s award for inability to grasp the blindingly obvious goes to Maya A. Beasley, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of a new book, Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press). According to a story on InsideHigherEd, Beasley tries in her book to explain why black graduates of elite institutions don’t go into high-paying professions and why they disproportionately enter careers like education, community organizing, and social work. She told the Web site: “Not everybody is going to make a great social worker. … Some are going to be fantastic brain surgeons, and we’re really missing the potential of these students because they’re not getting the information they need.”

So here’s a quick quiz: Why would a student pick education, social work, or community organizing over brain surgery? Ding! Ding! Ding! Those first three professions are among the easiest to get into. They take kids with the lowest GPA’s on campus. Medical schools do not.

Beasley never entertains the theory that black kids on elite campuses are simply unprepared to enter STEM fields, that they are not coming out of high school with the necessary background to succeed in the kind of pre-med classes that would be required to go on to a career in brain surgery, that they have been admitted to schools in which they had better stick to the easy subjects because they will be out of their depth if they go into the hard ones. Instead, for Beasley, it’s all social. She believes that there is a lack of black mentors and too much peer pressure pushing blacks into lower paying professions. She would like to see more black professors, particularly in STEM fields, get promoted. The solution, in other words, to the failure of racial preferences, is more racial preferences.

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