Justice Scalia caused an uproar last week when he tried to defend the “mismatch” hypothesis in an unvarnished and direct way, to which some took offense:

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well.

The mismatch hypothesis says that race-based affirmative action hurts black students on the whole, because when it is done across the country, it places many black students into schools where they are below average in academic preparation or ability. This sets them up to earn low grades, feel discouraged, and to drop out of highly competitive fields such as STEM and law. If race-based affirmative action were ended, black students would then do just as well as other students at their schools, and would be MORE likely to pursue careers in STEM and law.

The reaction in the media and on college campuses has been generally negative, with many calling Scalia a racist. Admittedly, Scalia could have more specific, noting that it’s mismatched African-Americans rather than all African-Americans who do not benefit. But there’s a major social science question at stake here, and because the issue is so politically fraught, the social science can’t be properly evaluated within an orthodox academy, in which everyone is on the left.

John McWhorter, a member of Heterodox Academy, has risen to the defense of Justice Scalia:

I don’t usually agree with Justice Scalia’s perspectives, but we are doing him wrong on this one. Scalia didn’t express himself as gracefully as he could have. No one could suppose that anything like all black students find the pedagogical pace at top-level universities overwhelming

[…]UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.


here’s what happens on the ground. At the University of California, San Diego the year before racial preferences were banned in the late ’90s, exactly one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later after students who once would have been “mismatched” to flagship schools UC Berkeley were now admitted to schools such as UC San Diego, one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones. What civil rights leader of the past would have seen this as racism? Who in the future will? Or why are we tarring Scalia as a bigot for espousing outcomes like this in the here and now?

In a similar vein, heterodox economist Glenn Loury at Brown University notes that Scalia’s phrasing was crude, but his point was supported by evidence about mismatch:

One aspect of Scalia’s concern — supported by the work of scholars such as Peter Arcidiacono at Duke — is that the net effect of affirmative action may be to leave many black students who are interested in the sciences, and who might have flourished at the less academically demanding colleges, on the academic margins at the more demanding schools. Read this, for a brief introduction to the serious study of these matters:

Arcidiacono’s careful analysis of the data at his home university showed that the black students — who on arrival expressed a similar interest to pursue a technical curriculum but who, due to affirmative action, came with lower prior academic qualifications than their non-black peers – were significantly more likely than white or Asian students to abandon their initially expressed intention to major in one of the hard sciences before graduation.

[…]Name-calling is easy, but problem solving is harder. If one is interested in producing genuine racial equality of opportunity for college students in this country, given the facts on the ground, one will necessarily have to come to terms with a vast disparity by race in preparation and qualifications for advanced study in the technical curricula.

Additional essays in support of Scalia–agreeing that affirmative action reduces Black achievement–were also offered by Thomas Sowell and Jason Riley.

As I noted in a recent post about helping African-American students feel like they belong, institutions need to take evidence seriously. I argued that they need to use evidence to decide what policies to implement. Affirmative action is complicated. There are clearly some benefits to it, which must be considered along with the serious problems discussed in the essays above. Unfortunately, orthodox academies have great difficulty even acknowledging the existence of evidence that goes against their preferred policy solutions. A heterodox academy would be far more effective at weighing all the evidence and selecting policies that might actually work.