Race And Merit: A Response To Nieli’s Criticism Of Groseclose

Tim Groseclose’s new book, Cheating: An Insider’s Report on the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA, is a masterful expose of the lying and deception UCLA officials employ to evade Prop. 209’s prohibition of racial preferences in admissions. In his otherwise positive review, Russell Nieli expresses disappointment that Groseclose’s criticism of UCLA’s continuing and illegal practice of favoring black and Hispanic applicants is limited to its dishonesty rather than its violation of the “without regard” principle of colorblind equality or even the many practical deficiencies Nieli identifies (mismatch, performance disincentives, fostering racial and ethnic conflict, etc.).

I share Nieli’s disappointment and in fact made a similar criticism of Richard Sander’s and Stuart Taylor’s otherwise “magisterial” Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. “Its only flaw,” I noted, “is its failure to agree with me. Well, not just with me but with all those who believe that preference based on race should be ended, not mended.” Sander and Taylor refrain from calling for the abolition of race preferences because they believe that academia is so committed to preserving them that the subterfuges and substitutes they would (and do) create to avoid implementing race neutrality would be worse than a well-regulated regime of carefully limited preferences.

Because Groseclose, as Nieli puts it, “seems to accept unquestioningly that the kind of racial diversity that UCLA seeks is a healthy and desirable goal,” he proposes one such substitute designed to produce racial diversity without racial preference: accepting 70% of applicants with family incomes less than $50,000 and only 4.6% of those over that threshhold.

Whether or not Nieli is right that such a policy “would destroy UCLA as a great research university and transform it into little more than a West Coast version of CCNY,” I share his reservations about it. But he and I part company when he writes that “[i]f such were the alternative, I would eagerly go back to the pre-209 racial quota system.”

I most definitely would not. Attempting to justify his bizarre preference for racial quotas over low-income preference, Nieli claims that “[a]t least” with quotas “the damage to meritocracy then was substantially contained since the affirmative action admits were relatively few in number.”

Nieli, alas, is not alone. He has been mesmerized by the mirage of “merit,” a trap that ensnares all too many academic critics of affirmative action. Not that merit does not exist– of course it does, and should be rewarded. The mirage is making affirmative action’s offense against merit the primary count in the indictment against it.

In addition to all the bad effects of affirmative action that Nieli ably lists, its fundamental offense is its violation — and in fact rejection — of the principle that condemns discrimination based on race. Any preference — for legacies, for athletic or musical talent, geographical diversity, or low-income applicants — will involve some compromise with pure merit, but merit is not a constitutionally protected value. It neither is nor should be a “protected category,” like race, ethnicity, and religion, walled off from public trespass.

Now for the unkindest cut of all: Nieli’s preference for racial quotas over large socio-economic preferences reminds me of Jeffrey Rosen, liberal law professor and legal affairs editor of The New Republic, whom I once described as a “A Brown-Defying, Meritocratic, Quota-Mongering Preference Pusher. ” based in part on his article in the New York Times Magazine, “How I Learned To Love Quotas.”                        

The liberal Rosen sounded just like the conservative Nieli (and anticipated the moderate Sander and Taylor) in explaining that he “became convinced that selective universities can’t achieve colorblindness, diversity and high admission standards at the same time.” If they were forced to abandon race preferences, “America’s finest public and private universities won’t hesitate for a moment in choosing diversity as the second goal, allowing rigorous admissions standards to go out the window.” If forced to adhere to colorblindness, Rosen concludes, the best schools would — as Groseclose in effect argues UCLA should — “de-emphasize objective predictors of academic performance, like grades and test scores, in favor of softer proxies for racial diversity.”

Rosen, I concluded my old post, became “a quota-mongering preference pusher precisely because he is a meritocrat,” a path Nieli says he would choose to follow if the alternative were socio-economic preferences that would inflict an even bigger hit on merit.

I can sympathize with academics whose personal and institutional interest leads them to prefer meritocratic policies but not with their willingness to subordinate the “without regard” principle prohibiting racial discrimination to that preference.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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