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Smother Love and Unthink: What Happens When Good Intentions Yield Bad Results

In the realm of higher education, race-based affirmative action has produced all too much pain and all too little gain.

By From the November 2012 issue

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Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It
By Richard H. Sanders and Stuart Taylor, Jr.
(Basic Books, 347 pages, $28.99)

IF GEORGE WILL WERE WITH US TODAY, he’d probably coin the terms Smother Love and Unthink to describe the age in which we live.

Smother Love would describe the special politically correct entitlements we shower on splinter groups after dividing society into as many different categories of aggrieved victims as possible. Unthink would describe the standard response of the forces of political correctness whenever they are faced with unpleasant facts. They don’t refute the facts, usually because they can’t. Factual findings at odds with politically correct assumptions are not false: They’re “unthinkable.” Hence the Age of Unthink.

This paradigm fits well with race-based affirmative action, which—coincidentally, is being reexamined by the Supreme Court in its upcoming term. While many grievances have a basis in history, such entitlements often punish innocent third parties without helping—and sometimes even injuring—the intended beneficiaries. This is particularly true of affirmative action in higher education, which tends to penalize genuine merit in the overall population and—just as bad—stifle the potential for real progress in the victim group: a clear case of Smother Love.

The quotation from Leo Tolstoy that precedes the preface to Mismatch, Richard Sander’s and Stuart Taylor’s sober, reasoned, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger critique of affirmative action sums up the underlying problem:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

For more than a generation now, leaders of many of the nation’s most prestigious universities have, in the name of fairness, practiced a policy of deliberate inequality: applying different standards for admission to different groups of students. Predictably, this deliberate double standard has caused anger and frustration among qualified white and Asian students denied admission because of their race. Justifiable as this anger is, it could be argued that if affirmative action worked—if it really achieved its professed goal of helping black Americans to realize their potential and better their lives—the social trade-off, while painful, would be an acceptable price to pay for righting old wrongs: No pain, no gain.

Alas, the evidence, as meticulously set forth by Messrs. Sander and Taylor, indicates that, in the realm of higher education, race-based affirmative action has produced all too much pain and all too little gain. It also reveals how the academic and political architects of this failed experiment live true to Tolstoy’s dictum.

The authors’ purpose is not to score political points but to “explain the outpouring of scholarly research in recent years showing how large racial preferences backfire against many and, perhaps, most recipients, to the point that they learn less and are likely to be less self-confident than had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.” This is the mismatch between schools and students referred to in the book’s title:

Mismatch largely explains why, even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out; why there are so few blacks and Hispanics with science and engineering degrees or with doctorates in any field; and why black law graduates fail bar exams at four times the white rate….

It is not lack of talent or innate ability that drives these students to drop out of school, flee rigorous courses, or abandon aspirations to be scientists or scholars; it is, rather, an unintended side effect of large racial preferences, which systematically put minority students in academic environments where they feel overwhelmed.

Because of the mismatch effect as well as the related role of racial preferences in fueling pernicious stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority, the authors argue that “the biggest problem for minorities in higher education is no longer race but rather racial preferences.” It’s as if—my analogy, not the authors’—university bureaucrats decided that Asians were underrepresented in the athletic program and therefore granted athletic scholarships to large numbers of Asian students regardless of their physical fitness, size, weight, and past athletic performance…and then decided that they needed more, not less, affirmative action when the kids bombed on the playing field.

One of the virtues of this book is that it is based on a rigorous, dispassionate examination of the facts. It is packed with easy-to-follow graphics and statistical analysis, as well as extensive case evidence based on interviews; the authors have even set up a website for readers interested in further detailed background data. After reading an advance copy of Mismatch, prominent African American journalist Clarence Page, a longtime advocate of affirmative action, concluded: “We don’t do future generations of students any favors by trying to ignore this issue or pretend it doesn’t exist. If common-sense moderates don’t step up and engage this debate, we only allow extremists to take control of it.” Mismatch offers a solid foundation on which to build such a dialogue.

An interesting sub-theme of the book is how a relatively small number of affluent, middle-class blacks benefit disproportionately from programs that were originally intended to help underprivileged minority kids find a way out of the ghetto. Readers familiar with abuses of affirmative action programs involving government contracts will notice a similarity here to the way a handful of relatively wealthy minority contractors with political connections game the system to add to their personal wealth, while the black community as a whole benefits little.

Unfortunately, the underprivileged students most in need of real affirmative action are beyond the scope of this book. They are the millions of kindergarten through 12th-graders in poor neighborhoods who will never see the inside of a decent classroom, will never reach the level of literacy and numeracy needed to get a good job (much less a prestigious college degree), and will face a grueling uphill battle for the rest of their lives—whatever their skin color—due to the miserable failure of the urban public education system. Trying to save kids like this by using quotas in higher education is like signing up as fighter pilots raw recruits who haven’t been through basic training. It’s bad for the institution, bad for society, and, most of all, bad for the alleged beneficiaries.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.