Does Affirmative Action Do Its Job?

Generic image (Lifesize/Thinkstock)
Generic image (Lifesize/Thinkstock)

As the Supreme Court gears up to make a decision regarding affirmative action this spring, Dan Slater discusses the law in the New York Times, and whether it hurts or helps students of color.

The last time around, in 2003, the court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action plan. A divided court ruled, 5 to 4, that "student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions." Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." …

The idea that affirmative action might harm its intended beneficiaries was suggested as early as the 1960s, when affirmative action, a phrase introduced by the Kennedy administration, began to take hold as government and corporate policy. One long-simmering objection to affirmative action was articulated publicly by Clarence Thomas years before he joined the Supreme Court in 1991. Mr. Thomas, who has opposed affirmative action even while conceding that he benefited from it, told a reporter for The New York Times in 1982 that affirmative action placed students in programs above their abilities. Mr. Thomas, who was then the 34-year-old chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, didn't deny the crisis in minority employment. But he blamed a failed education system rather than discrimination in admissions. "I watched the operation of such affirmative action policies when I was in college," he said, "and I watched the destruction of many kids as a result."

Scholars began referring to this theory as "mismatch." It's the idea that affirmative action can harm those it's supposed to help by placing them at schools in which they fall below the median level of ability and therefore have a tough time. As a consequence, the argument goes, these students suffer learningwise and, later, careerwise. To be clear, mismatch theory does not allege that minority students should not attend elite universities. Far from it. But it does say that students — minority or otherwise — do not automatically benefit from attending a school that they enter with academic qualifications well below the median level of their classmates.


Read Dan Slater's entire piece at the New York Times.

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