Media starting to panic over SCOTUS review of affirmative action

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in its review of Fisher v University of Texas, Austin, a case challenging affirmative action at that university.  The problem that supporters of affirmative action face is that over the past few years a substantial body of scholarship has developed studying the effects of admissions preferences, specifically the phenomenon called “mismatch.”  Quite logically, if some groups are admitted with lower qualifications (as measured by grades and standardized tests), they will as a whole find themselves at a disadvantage in keeping up with students admitted with higher standards.  And as they struggle to keep up with the pace and perform well, they end up dropping out in larger numbers.

Richard Sander of the Pope Center explains:

It is helpful to think about mismatch as three interrelated phenomena that could affect a student of any race—let’s call her Sally—who receives a large admissions preference, so that she attends a college where her level of academic preparation is substantially below that of her peers. 

First, “learning mismatch” occurs if Sally learns less than she would at a less competitive school, because the pace is too fast or her professors are pitching their material at a level that’s not ideal for her. Others and I have argued that learning mismatch occurs on a massive scale in American law schools, where African-Americans (and some other students) tend to receive very large preferences and then, very often, are never able to practice law because they cannot pass bar exams.

Our best estimate is that only about one-third of blacks who start law school in America successfully graduate and pass the bar exam on their first attempt (see my September 2006 blog post here).

A second form of mismatch—“competition” mismatch—occurs when students abandon particular fields, or college itself, because of the practical and psychological effects of competing with better-prepared students.

Suppose that Sally dreams of becoming a chemist, does very well in a standard high school chemistry course, and receives a preference into an elite school where most of her classmates have taken AP chemistry. Even if Sally does not experience “learning” mismatch, she is likely nonetheless to end up with a B- or a C in chemistry simply because of the strength of the competition.

A long line of studies (e.g., this excellent study by two psychologists) have shown that students receiving large preferences, facing these pressures, tend to abandon STEM fields in large numbers. Competition mismatch thus appears to have large and damaging effects on the number of blacks, in particular, graduating with science or engineering degrees. 

The third type of mismatch—“social mismatch”—is in some ways the most intriguing.

Several studies have now found that college students are much more likely to form friendships with students who have similar levels of academic preparation or performance at college. The phenomenon operates even within racial groups, but when a college’s preferences are highly correlated with race (as they are at many elite schools), social mismatch can lead to self-segregation by blacks and/or Hispanics. 

The result is decreasing social interaction across racial lines. That’s particularly relevant to the Supreme Court’s deliberations because its tolerance of racial preferences has been based on the idea that a diverse racial campus promotes interracial contact and learning. But if preferences promote substantial social mismatch, then race-conscious admissions actually decrease interracial contact and learning—not only at the school where the preferences are used, but also at the college that the preferenced minority student would have attended in the absence of preferences.

This indisputable reality (confirmed by multiple peer-reviewed studies) knocks the legs out from under rationalizations of preferences.  And signs of panic are appearing.

Yesterday, a number of media outlets disgraced themselves reporting on the oral arguments.  Alex Griswold of Mediaite:

If you’ve been reading headlines from liberal and mainstream media alike today, you might be shocked to hear that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is apparently an overt racist. During oral arguments on an affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Tex. at Austin, Scalia suggested that blacks simply don’t belong at elite schools. “Justice Scalia Suggests Blacks Belong at ‘Slower’ Colleges” reported Mother Jones. “Scalia: Maybe black students belong at ‘less-advanced’ schools” reported The Hill.

Most of these reports came out before the transcript was released, based on accounts of those who were in the courtroom at the time (oral arguments are never televised). But once the transcript emerged, it turned out that critics had jumped the gun. Scalia wasn’t sharing his own views, he was asking about a very serious academic critique of affirmative action that others had made.

Now, there may well be technical legal grounds the Court will find to avoid ending affirmative action.  And although no one will formally admit it, political grounds – a fear of an explosion of protest à la Black Lives Matter – may also push the Court in that direction.

But the logic of affirmative action efforts has been proven to be flawed.  It is an example of good intentions leading to hell.  Sooner or later, even its supporters will catch on, although the growth of bureaucratic empires devoted to “diversity” provides a huge, wealthy, and powerful constituency for the continuation of these policies.  Regardless of the cost to minorities.

Spot the racists.