Scalia's Poorly Worded Comment Has Merit

Scalia's Poorly Worded Comment Has Merit
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Justin Antonin Scalia 's dreadfully worded comments last week during oral argument about racial preferences in college admissions understandably offended many people.

But what he was obviously trying to say made an important point that had nothing to do with racism -- a charge hurled at Scalia by people including Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, who once again wallowed in shameless demagoguery.

Scalia began by saying that "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 slower track school, where they [would] do well."

This was seen by many as a racist suggestion that blacks are inherently unfit for top schools. And phrases like "less advanced school" and "slower track school" sounded derogatory.

But Scalia clearly meant to say that perhaps it does not benefit blacks to use large racial preferences to get them into a highly selective university where, all the evidence shows, such preferentially admitted students don't do well.

He continued for a few more awkwardly worded sentences to sketch the consequential theories advanced in works including a 2012 book by Richard Sander and me, “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It,” and in amicus briefs by us and others.

Scalia's bad choice of words gave critics such as Reid a pretext to dismiss mismatch theory without confronting the growing body of evidence that it points to very serious problems caused by large admissions preferences.

But the gist of Scalia's point is consistent with common sense. Why is anyone surprised at the idea (confirmed by data) that black students have a hard time thriving academically when brought by very large racial preferences into competition with classmates most of whom are far, far better prepared? (Small preferences, we think, create no such problem.)

Scalia's point is also supported by a large and growing body of social science studies by more than 20 respected scholars about the effects of large racial preferences.

Mismatch theory does not deny that many black students are academic stars. President Obama, for one. It points to the problems of all students who are admitted via large preferences, as are some very rich donors' children, some athletes, many Hispanic students, and the vast majority of black students.

(The "legacy preferences" at many schools for alumni children, which I also oppose, appear to be much smaller, with a much smaller mismatch effect, the scant available data suggest.)

The research also suggests that black students do fine when competing against Asians and whites who arrive at college with similar academic credentials.

While the details are complicated, mismatch theory and the research underlying it are easy to understand in a general way.

Below are five critical facts (detailed in “Mismatch”) that no open-minded expert doubts, although the universities, other supporters of racial preferences, and most of the news media conceal them insofar as possible.

(1) Because of very large racial preferences in admissions, the racial gaps among entering students in test scores, high school grades, and other indicia of academic preparation are enormous at virtually all selective colleges -- on the order of 200-450 SAT points between the mean black and Asian, and 150-400 points between the mean black and white, students at the same college. There are also commensurate racial gaps at almost all selective colleges in entering students' high school grades if adjusted for high school quality.

(The gaps are much smaller among "holistically" admitted students at state colleges in California, Michigan, and other states where racial preferences have been outlawed.)

(2) As a result, there are also large racial gaps in academic performance in college and graduate school. More than half of black students end up in the bottom tenth of their classes in law schools and in the bottom quarter at most selective colleges, no matter how hard they work.

(3) Five undisputed, peer-reviewed studies show that these racial gaps also force highly disproportionate numbers of the many black students who are interested in becoming scientists to give up that ambition. The reason is that they cannot do well in science and other STEM courses and thus move into soft, easily graded courses.

(4) All this creates or aggravates racial isolation and self-segregation, in part because studies show that unsuccessful students take different courses than successful students and that most students socialize mainly with their academic peers.

(5) Most of same black students who suffer academically at schools to which they were admitted via large preferences would do far better at somewhat less competitive schools where their academic preparation would make them competitive with classmates. But because of what is called the cascade effect, as long as there are large preferences there will be large racial gaps in academic preparation and performance at virtually all selective schools.

My co-author and I, and others, draw from the limited available evidence two hugely important but debatable inferences. The first, of which I am very convinced, is that mismatch leads to a loss of intellectual self-confidence among many black students that may be long lasting.

The second inference is that many recipients of large racial preferences would be better off in the long run -- with more learning, better careers, and perhaps happier lives -- if they went to less prestigious but still excellent schools where they could do well academically.

Prestige has obvious advantages. The question is whether they outweigh the costs of being near the bottom of the class.

Serious mismatch scholars say that more data, which universities assiduously conceal, are needed to shed light on these two issues, and on related ones such as whether the current campus unrest is related to the academic problems that most black students suffer because of mismatch.

On the other hand, virtually all of the highly credentialed scholars who attack mismatch theory gloss over the five numbered facts above -- which they know to be true -- and launch ill-founded and often intemperate attacks on the debatable inferences as though they discredit all of mismatch theory.

At the same time, these anti-mismatch zealots furiously oppose making available to scholars or the public the data that could shed light on the long-run effects of large racial preferences on the students about whom they purport to care. I think I know why.

Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington writer, lawyer and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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