Opinion: CJ Opinion

Federal civil rights leader pans university racial preferences

(CJ photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ photo by Kari Travis)

Racial preferences in university admissions don’t work.

That’s the simple message Gail Heriot sends to supporters and critics of those preferences. Heriot is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a law professor at the University of San Diego.

“They just don’t work,” Heriot said during a Nov. 1 online presentation for the John Locke Foundation. “We now have quite a bit of empirical evidence that African-American students are not being done a favor when they are admitted to a school where their academic credentials put them toward the bottom of their class.”

Heriot reminded her audience how racial preferences affect students. “It makes it likely that a student who receives the preference will be competing against students who are better prepared and, hence, more likely to get good grades.”

The impact extends beyond an A or B grade. “Several empirical studies now show that we would have more African-American medical doctors — more African-American dentists, engineers, scientists — if only African-American students attended a college where they didn’t need a preference, where their entering academic credentials are no different from other students,” Heriot said.

“Affirmative action preferences actually hurt their intended beneficiaries,” she added. “They don’t help.”

Heriot warns against nudging all students toward colleges and universities with the biggest name brand. “Getting into a high-prestige college is a great thing, but getting good grades in college is also a great thing,” she said. “The best thing — if you can do it — is to have both. … But those two things are in tension.”

Getting good grades proves to be more important to the student’s long-term success. “It’s usually better to have good grades at a very good school than to have bad grades at a high-prestige school,” Heriot said.

Basic student outcomes shouldn’t surprise us. “While some students are going to outperform their entering credentials, just as some students will underperform theirs, most students — on average — perform in the general range that their entering credentials suggest.”

The same logic applies to other forms of admissions preference. “It’s not just race,” Heriot said. “Any kind of preference is likely to cause the student to get disappointing grades — whether that preference is due to race, athletic prowess, or parent political clout. The unfortunate part is those very same students could have gotten good grades — maybe even excellent grades — at a school just a little bit further down in the pecking order.”

Implications for public policy are clear. “I don’t see how anybody could support race-preferential admissions policies if it turns out that this research is correct in concluding that it actually makes it more difficult for minority students to succeed,” Heriot said.

Supporters of racial preferences often argue that the goal extends beyond individual students. A more racially diverse student body enriches everyone’s education, they say.

That argument serves minorities poorly, Heriot argues. “Let’s remember: Minority students aren’t public utilities.”

Debates today over racial preferences often break down along partisan or ideological lines. “Today those who call for race neutrality are assumed to be conservative or libertarians, and it’s often true,” Heriot said. “But these days they frequently get accused of being racist.”

It’s worth noting that the early opponents of race-based preferences tended to be well-known figures on the political left. Heriot’s recent book on racial preferences, “A Dubious Expediency.” takes its title from a line in a court opinion by Stanley Mosk. A self-described liberal, Mosk served more than three decades on California’s Supreme Court.

Writing in 1976, Mosk argued that upholding the University of California’s race preferences “would call for the sacrifice of principle for the sake of dubious expediency and would represent a retreat in the struggle to assure that each man and woman shall be judged on the basis of individual merit alone, a struggle which has only lately achieved success in removing legal barriers to racial equality.”

Another critic of racial preferences, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, “was often viewed as the furthest to the left of the nine justices,” Heriot said. Douglas had been an early supporter of the civil rights movement and an enemy of Jim Crow.

“He was outraged when the rest of the justices chickened out of taking a case,” Heriot said. “it would have been the first Supreme Court to test the legality of discriminating against white applicants in order to admit more black applicants.”

For both Mosk and Douglas, government-sanctioned race discrimination was “a dirty business,” no matter which race was affected, Heriot said.

N.C. voters could have an opportunity in the months ahead to send their own message about racial preferences.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has filed Senate Bill 729, the Public Nondiscrimination Amendment. It would “prohibit the State and its political subdivisions from discriminating or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

If voters see S.B. 729 on an upcoming ballot, Heriot’s warning about the failure of racial preferences should prove helpful.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.