History is replete with accounts of ambitious political initiatives that have promised to address all manner of injustices, only to devolve into a “tragedy of good intentions.”
Race-based affirmative action seems to be no exception to this historical trend.
The University of California has a long history of supporting race-based affirmative action programs, which are aimed at improving the educational opportunities of minority students. However, it was forced to officially suspend those efforts after the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned racial preference policies in California state institutions.
But there is ample evidence the University has covertly continued to employ race-based affirmative action policies in its admissions process. Specifically, a report compiled by Robert Mare, a UCLA sociology professor, found that differences in admissions rates between 2007 and 2011 could not be attributed to anything other than race. This evidence prompted Richard Sander, a UCLA School of Law professor, to publicly request University admissions data and later initiate a lawsuit after administrators refused his requests for transparency.
Sander is now suing the UC again after it refused his public records request for admissions data since 2008. His latest inquiry is predicated on the hypothesis that race-based affirmative action, which was largely reduced in the early years of Proposition 209, made a covert comeback in 2007 when many UC campuses adopted “holistic” admissions processes.
The possibility that the UC has continued to employ race-based affirmative action policies bodes ill for efforts to help its minority students. Race-based affirmative action programs do not deliver substantial enough results to justify their violation of equal protection principles. There is, however, a better way to help underprivileged students: affirmative action based on economic class.
There can be no doubt that proponents of affirmative action have good intentions. It is designed to address the legacy of racial inequality that continues to prevent minorities from full and equal participation in our society. However, just because a program is well-intended does not mean it will work in practice.
Practically speaking, race-based affirmative action programs force university officials to favor applicants of one racial group over another in the admissions process. Such programs are founded on the principle that a member of a favored racial group has a better claim to admission than a member of a disfavored racial group.
In light of our society’s longstanding commitment to equal protection, any discussion of race-based affirmative action’s appropriateness as policy could well end here. But because policymakers have long extolled the instrumental value of such programs, it is worth examining what impact they have had on college campuses.
Unfortunately, many commentators have come to the unambiguous conclusion that race-based affirmative action programs have failed to move the needle on campus diversity. According to an analysis from The New York Times, affirmative action has not appreciably increased the representation of black and Hispanic students at our country’s top colleges and universities. Moreover, the analysis cited experts saying that race-based affirmative action cannot solve larger issues of economic and social inequality that continue to hold minority students back.
These long-standing racial disparities in access to educational opportunity speak to a more fundamental issue with race-based affirmative action. According to Sander’s “mismatch” theory, affirmative action places minority students who are ill-prepared in academically rigorous environments despite their academic performance in their prior education.
It is ludicrous to expect that all underprivileged minority students, many of whom have been denied the benefits of good schools, should be adequately prepared for the rigors of the country’s most selective universities. Obviously, students from different backgrounds can succeed if given the right opportunities. But proponents of affirmative action seem to hold that mere admission to a selective institution of higher education, along with perfunctory remedial coursework, is enough to bridge the gap.
The evidence overwhelmingly corroborates Sander’s position, though. Sander said in an interview with the Daily Bruin the proportion of minority students completing four-year degrees was actually lower during periods in which the UC employed affirmative action programs. The same was true of the overall graduation rates of these students.
In an interview, Sander said the passage of Proposition 209 was a natural experiment allowing researchers to test the impact of race-based affirmative action on minority achievement. He argued the results of the experiment were not encouraging for supporters of racial preference programs.
Specifically, Sander’s analysis suggests that when the UC complied with Proposition 209 in the early years after its enactment, minority students were “matched” to academic environments in which they were better prepared to succeed.
Clearly, race-based affirmative action isn’t working. The alternative approach, affirmative action based on economic class, would both help underprivileged students succeed and preserve racially neutral admissions policies. If the UC were to take the income level of an applicant’s parent or guardian into consideration, it would be far more effective in creating equitable campuses.
According to an opinion article from The Century Foundation published in The New York Times, affirmative action programs that take income levels and performance relative to peers at their schools into consideration are effective in both narrowing achievement gaps between socioeconomic classes and creating racially diverse campuses. Given that race-based affirmative action programs entail both practical and substantive problems, programs based on class seem to provide a better alternative.
Although arguments for race-based affirmative action are suffused with good intentions, it’s clear that such programs entail significant equal protection violations and do little to improve the educational outcomes of minority students.
Although ensuring minority success in higher education is important, it shouldn’t come at the cost of a tragedy of good intentions.