Universities are among the most progressive and anti-racist institutions in American society. Many Americans therefore found it confusing to see dozens of our top universities racked by racial protests since last September. To add to the puzzle, many of the most high-profile actions occurred at universities widely perceived to be the most devoted to social justice and racial equality -– schools such as Brown, Yale, Amherst, Wesleyan, and Oberlin. (Every one of these schools earned a red or yellow light from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, indicating schools that are not recommended for conservative students.) What is going on?
A simple resolution of the puzzle is the hypothesis that the anti-racist policies these schools pursue give rise, indirectly, to experiences of marginalization for black students. Lee Jussim and I suggested this hypothesis in an essay last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal. We noted that we support affirmative action in general – taking vigorous steps to increase the recruitment, training, retention, and ultimate success of black students. But we raised concerns about the most controversial element of affirmative action: the use of racial preferences in admissions. Here is the key passage:
But as practiced in most of the top American universities, affirmative action also involves using different admissions standards for applicants of different races, which automatically creates differences in academic readiness and achievement. Although these gaps vary from college to college, studies have found that Asian students enter with combined math/verbal SAT scores on the order of 80 points higher than white students and 200 points higher than black students. A similar pattern occurs for high-school grades. These differences are large, and they matter: High-school grades and SAT scores predict later success as measured by college grades and graduation rates.
As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers. People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.
We also analyzed other policies widely used on campus that seem, on the basis of current evidence, to be likely to backfire and exacerbate racial conflict and grievance: creating “ethnic enclaves” such as identity studies centers and departments, and diversity training, particularly if it discusses “microaggressions.”
As that essay was going to press, Heterodox Academy member Amy Wax sent us the text of an astonishing letter written in 1969, at the dawn of racial preferences, from Macklin Fleming, Justice of the California Court of Appeal. Judge Fleming had written a personal letter to Louis Pollak, the dean of Yale Law School. Fleming was concerned about the plan Dean Pollak had recently announced under which Yale would essentially implement a racial quota – 10% of each entering class would be composed of black students. To achieve this goal, Yale had just admitted 43 black students, only five of whom had qualified under their normal standards. (The exchange of letters was later made public with the consent of both parties; you can read the full text of both letters here.)
Judge Fleming explained why he believed this new policy was a dangerous experiment that was likely to cause harmful stereotypes, rather than reduce them. His argument is essentially the one that Jussim and I made 47 years later. Here is what he wrote:
The immediate damage to the standards of Yale Law School needs no elaboration. But beyond this, it seems to me the admission policy adopted by the Law School faculty will serve to perpetuate the very ideas and prejudices it is designed to combat. If in a given class the great majority of the black students are at the bottom of the class, this factor is bound to instill, unconsciously at least, some sense of intellectual superiority among the white students and some sense of intellectual inferiority among the black students. Such a pairing in the same school of the brightest white students in the country with black students of mediocre academic qualifications is social experiment with loaded dice and a stacked deck. The faculty can talk around the clock about disadvantaged background, and it can excuse inferior performance because of poverty, environment, inadequate cultural tradition, lack of educational opportunity, etc. The fact remains that black and white students will be exposed to each other under circumstances in which demonstrated intellectual superiority rests with the whites.
But Judge Fleming went much further. He made specific predictions about what the new policy would do to black students over the years, and how they would react. Here is his prophecy:
No one can be expected to accept an inferior status willingly. The black students, unable to compete on even terms in the study of law, inevitably will seek other means to achieve recognition and self-expression. This is likely to take two forms. First, agitation to change the environment from one in which they are unable to compete to one in which they can. Demands will be made for elimination of competition, reduction in standards of performance, adoption of courses of study which do not require intensive legal analysis, and recognition for academic credit of sociological activities which have only an indirect relationship to legal training. Second, it seems probable that this group will seek personal satisfaction and public recognition by aggressive conduct, which, although ostensibly directed at external injustices and problems, will in fact be primarily motivated by the psychological needs of the members of the group to overcome feelings of inferiority caused by lack of success in their studies. Since the common denominator of the group of students with lower qualifications is one of race this aggressive expression will undoubtedly take the form of racial demands–the employment of faculty on the basis of race, a marking system based on race, the establishment of a black curriculum and a black law journal, an increase in black financial aid, and a rule against expulsion of black students who fail to satisfy minimum academic standards.
If you read Judge Fleming’s predictions after watching the videos of student protests, and then reading the lists of demands posted at TheDemands.org, the match is uncanny. And if you look at the way Brown University responded to these demands (to take one of the most detailed responses), you can see a university doubling down. Brown’s response does many things right — it offers creative ideas for enhanced outreach, recruitment, and mentoring of potential faculty and students from under represented groups; it aims to discover and remove obstacles to their success; and it calls for enhanced data collection to keep track of progress. But it also commits Brown to achieving very large increases in the total number of black faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, and it is clear (and explicit for its medical school) that much of this increase will be accomplished by increasing the size of racial preferences. In addition, the report calls for expanding ethnic enclaves (e.g., “expanding research centers focused on issues of race, ethnicity, and social justice”); expanding diversity training that, while not mandatory, would be strongly encouraged (e.g., department heads would be held accountable for getting their numbers up); and greatly increasing the importance and visibility of race as a focal topic on campus and in the curriculum (e.g., “Double the number of first-year and sophomore seminars related to issues of power, privilege, inequality, and social justice.”) These additional steps are all things that Jussim and I concluded are likely to do no good, and that might make things worse. (See Conor Friedersdorf’s analysis of the Brown plan at The Atlantic.)
I close with two short excerpts from Judge Fleming’s extraordinary letter:
The American creed, one that Yale has proudly espoused, holds that an American should be judged as an individual and not as a member of a group. To me it seems axiomatic that a system which ignores this creed and introduces the factor of race in the selection of students for a professional school is inherently malignant, no matter how high-minded the purpose nor how benign the motives of those making the selection….
The present policy of admitting students on two bases and thereafter purporting to judge their performance on one basis is a highly explosive sociological experiment almost certain to achieve undesirable results.
Nearly all selective American universities have engaged in this “explosive sociological experiment” for more than 40 years, and things have played out largely as Judge Fleming predicted. The experiment may have helped black students in some ways, but it seems to have harmed them in other ways. We cannot evaluate the net effect of the experiment because social scientists are generally reluctant to talk about the downsides of affirmative action. (The fear of discussing politically unpopular hypotheses is a problem we are trying to fix at Heterodox Academy.)
And so the experiment continues, and it is likely to continue for many more decades unless the Supreme Court intervenes. Black students are (at least in some ways) the victims of the experiment. And in response to their legitimate anger, universities will now intensify their commitment to the experiment.
What’s the alternative? In our WSJ article, Jussim and I praised the US Army for the principled way that it addressed its severe racism problem in the 1970s by implementing affirmative action without racial preferences. (See this brief summary of Moskos & Butler, 1996, All That We Can Be: Racial Integration the Army Way.)
Let us hope that a few bold university presidents break from the pack, break the cycle, and try a different approach.