This post was originally published in the Harvard Crimson.
There are two major justifications for racial preferences in college admissions: that they diversify classes and level the playing field. In both respects, these preferences are disappointing.
Elite colleges argue that racial preferences are essential for class diversity, which enhances the education received by students graduating into a diverse world and creates a diverse elite. Harvard's diversity has certainly enhanced my education.
These colleges claim they seek a student body that is "diverse in many ways," yet in practice their admissions offices value race far more than any other diversity factor they consider. According to a 1997 study, a black applicant to an elite university received the equivalent of a 450-point boost on a 1600-point SAT score relative to an Asian applicant with the same credentials. Students from underrepresented states, though, receive a much smaller boost. Poor students may actually receive no boost. Only legacies and athletes receive boosts on par with those conferred by race.
Does this system properly promote diversity? Consider this: According to The Shape of the River, a 1998 book co-written by former Harvard president Derek C. Bok, 86 percent of black students at a group of 28 selective schools were middle- or upper-class. Would anyone dispute that a poor white or Asian applicant would bring at least as much diversity to a very wealthy campus as a well-off black applicant?
Outside the courtroom, many supporters of racial preferences also argue that they level the playing field.
Yet the educational disadvantages of class are now larger than those of race. The white-black test score gap used to be twice as large as the rich-poor test score gap; that relationship has flipped. Whites are twice as likely to obtain a bachelor's degree as blacks, but students from educated affluent families are seven times as likely to graduate as students from uneducated poor families. Holding race constant, suffering from a range of socioeconomic disadvantages lowers math and verbal SAT scores by 399 points, on average. Holding socioeconomic disadvantage constant, black students score 56 points lower than white students, on average.
Race still matters in America. In realtor offices, banks, schools, courtrooms, and workplaces, there is evidence that blacks face systematic discrimination that cannot be explained by income. Being poor, furthermore, disadvantages black students more than white students.
Yet researchers have also found that after accounting for blacks' lower average parental incomes and wealth levels, the black-white employment and earnings gaps nearly disappear, and, according to the book Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, blacks in fact tend to graduate high school at higher rates than whites.
Reconciling these findings is difficult, but it seems safe to estimate that for college applicants, poverty is a larger disadvantage than race. Affirmative action, therefore, undercompensates for economic disadvantage and overcompensates for racial disadvantage, at least when considering educational opportunities.
Racial preferences also entail steep and unique costs.
They stigmatize minorities. "26% of whites and 37% of blacks say that most people attribute minorities' successes in business and education to racial preferences, rather than their own skills and abilities," the Pew Research Center found. Racism is surely behind some doubt of minorities' achievements, but it is tragic that excessive racial preferences, by lowering admissions standards for minorities, provide rationalization for such doubts, which then are used as evidence that the preferences are still necessary.
Based on last semester's controversy on affirmative action, many will dispute that racial preferences involve "lowering admissions standards" for minorities.
Some say that racial preferences simply take into account the disadvantage overcome by minority applicants. But the research cited above shows that most of that disadvantage is economic, not racial, and that racial preferences currently overcompensate for racial educational disadvantage. Furthermore, most minorities benefitting from racial preferences are not particularly economically disadvantaged.
Others say that an applicant's minority status is itself a contribution to the Harvard community. True enough, but no one is responsible for being a certain race. Excessive race preferences, therefore, lower the bar of what applicants must accomplish by themselves to gain admittance, like any excessive preferences do.
Still others argue that standardized tests are racially biased, a claim challenged by the College Board. It is unlikely, however, that such bias would be significant enough to merit the magnitude of today's racial preferences, since white students scored, on average, 100 points higher than their black counterparts.
This lower bar stokes racial tension. Some whites now believe, accurately or not, that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in America. Racial preferences arguably divide us more than they unite us.
In 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor." Fifty years later, affirmative action is failing to raise the poor, both black and white.
To truly level the playing field, we need to reweigh racial and socioeconomic admissions preferences to reflect their relative contributions to educational disadvantage. Race-neutral criteria could preserve significant racial diversity. We should also scrutinize legacy and athletic preferences.
Affirmative action, however, is one of society's least effective and most costly equalizers. We should instead pursue aggressive social initiatives, like education reform, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and improving job training. Every poor American, regardless of skin color, deserves a fairer chance at success.
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