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Culture Q&A

Stuart Taylor Jr.

Negative action

Little-discussed evidence, says lawyer and journalist Stuart Taylor Jr., shows that racial preferences are hurting college-bound minority students

Negative action

Stuart Taylor Jr. (Greg Kahn/Genesis)

Stuart Taylor Jr. combines journalistic excellence and legal knowledge. He graduated from Harvard Law School, was a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times, and is now a Brookings Institution senior fellow and National Journal columnist. With the Supreme Court poised to deliver an important decision on racial preferences, I asked about the findings of an important new book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, that he co-authored with Richard Sander.

Your emphasis on hurting those purportedly helped reminds me of how welfare reform made progress in the 1990s: People understood that welfare hurt those it was supposed to help. Your analogy is a good one. Perfectly good students jump by racial preferences into colleges and universities for which they just aren’t qualified or well-prepared. It’s taking a kid who’s got a B average at a mediocre high school and 1000 on the SATs, and putting him into a university where most people have A averages from better high schools and 1400 SATs.

What typically happens? They arrive at college. They’ve been told, “You’re great. You’re going to do fine here.” Kids with science interest who want to do pre-med would do fine at a college where their classmates were on a par with them but because of race they’ve been singled out and put into colleges where their colleagues are way ahead of them.

Then what happens? There’s a huge attrition of black students and Hispanics who want to be scientists, engineers, doctors—who would succeed if they were at colleges for which they were well-qualified. Instead, they bail out and major in Sociology or African-American Studies because they can’t pass the courses they wanted to take. This takes a huge toll on their intellectual self-confidence and their long-term career patterns. This is doing grave harm to a lot of black kids—harm that is life-long.

Tell us about some of your Mismatch findings. We do not think there’s any genetic component to this, but blacks who entered elite schools with aspirations in science, technology, engineering, or math—STEM majors—were about half as likely as whites in the same position to finish college with STEM degrees.

At the University of California, after an initiative in 1996 banned racial preferences, the number of blacks and Hispanics at Berkeley and UCLA, the elite campuses, went down dramatically. Those students went to Cal Riverside or Cal Irvine: Their graduation and science persistence rates went up.

Fewer than half of entering black law students ever pass the bar exam; they’re left deep in debt, with no career, after pouring several years of their lives into this.

Why haven’t we heard more about the performance gap? The media ignore the academic performance, the problems that the supposed beneficiaries have in college. I hope the Supreme Court will impose total transparency. How big a gap is there between the SAT scores of your white and black freshmen? How big a gap is there between the grade point averages of various categories of freshmen? How do people do in college? What about your statistics on science retention? What about graduation rates? Because whenever those statistics are available—and the universities try very hard to suppress them—they are shocking. 

Here’s a counter-argument: If colleges provided better support services for struggling students, many more would be able to succeed. There’s something to that argument. Some students could do well at the colleges for which they’re not initially well-qualified with the right combination of remedial services and hard work. But would it make sense to have every selective college with almost a separate remedial program populated almost entirely by black and Hispanic students, as opposed to them going to colleges where they don’t need a remedial program?

Another counter-argument: The elimination of racial preferences would lead to more inequality. Racial preferences are making us more unequal, income-wise, not less. How does it help with inequality to take the child of a black doctor who immigrated from Great Britain, and elevate him ahead of the child of a white or Asian cab driver who’s been here for generations? But that’s how it works, and the media don’t want you to know it.

Many college presidents say increased racial diversity gives students a better educational environment. That’s become the prevalent argument because the Supreme Court, for reasons of its own, has made that the only argument it will accept. If you could have a proportionate racial mix at all the colleges, and it just happened, sure. But when you have basically a two-tiered, color-coded educational hierarchy in every college in the country because of this system, you don’t get the same amount of racial friendships, racial mixing, racial interactions, as you would if it happened more naturally, because students are going to different classes—by the end of the freshman year, there are hardly any black kids in the science classes. 

Still, a third counter-argument: On the campus as a whole, wouldn’t a ban on racial preferences lead to less diversity? If racial preferences were banned tomorrow and everybody complied, there would not be one iota less diversity in American universities collectively than there is now. There would be some redistribution—less diversity at Harvard and other top schools, more diversity at the ones farther down, with all of the black students doing better at every level. The argument for diversity, on closer examination, becomes an argument that you’re going to have more blacks in leadership positions if we have more of them at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etcetera. 

Getting jobs at elite law firms they otherwise would not get? They will get jobs at elite law firms—but the same partners who said, “We gotta have more black faces here,” will say if a memo is not what they expect it to be, “I don’t want him working on my case!” You end up with a lot of careers ending unhappily fairly early at these big law firms, and a lot of understandably embittered black people. They have been told, “You’re going to do fine at this college, this law school, this firm,” but nobody’s ever told them, “You’re not well-prepared for this. You’d be better off somewhere else.” 

A fourth counter-argument: Seeing more people from their race in colleges inspires some middle-school and high-school students. John McWhorter, a black critic of affirmative action, wrote in his book, Losing the Race, “I knew from at least the age of ten that there was something called affirmative action. It meant that I would not have to work as hard or do as well as my white classmates in order to get into a good college. That had an effect on me.” That has an effect on a lot of kids.


Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Stuart Taylor Jr.: