The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action

Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr., The Atlantic, October 2, 2012

Affirmative action in university admissions started in the late 1960s as a noble effort to jump-start racial integration and foster equal opportunity. But somewhere along the decades, it has lost its way.

Over time, it has become a political lightning rod and one of our most divisive social policies. It has evolved into a regime of racial preferences at almost all selective schools—preferences so strikingly large and politically unpopular that administrators work hard to conceal them. The largest, most aggressive preferences are usually reserved for upper-middle-class minorities on whom they often inflict significant academic harm, whereas more modest policies that could help working-class and poor people of all races are given short shrift. Academic leaders often find themselves flouting the law and acting in ways that aggravate the worst consequences of large preferences. They have become prisoners of a system that many privately deplore for its often-perverse unintended effects but feel they cannot escape.

The single biggest problem in this system—a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research—is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries. Large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively—even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.

We refer to this problem as “mismatch,” a word that 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. Because of mismatch, racial preference policies often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries, rather than creating the diverse racial utopias so often advertised in college campus brochures.

The mismatch effect happens when a school extends to a student such a large admissions preference—sometimes because of a student’s athletic prowess or legacy connection to the school, but usually because of the student’s race—that the student finds himself in a class where he has weaker academic preparation than nearly all of his classmates. {snip}

The student who is underprepared relative to others in that class falls behind from the start and becomes increasingly lost as the professor and his classmates race ahead. His grades on his first exams or papers put him at the bottom of the class. Worse, the experience may well induce panic and self-doubt, making learning even harder.


So we have a terrible confluence of forces putting students in classes for which they aren’t prepared, causing them to lose confidence and underperform even more while, at the same time, consolidating the stereotype that they are inherently poor students. And you can see how at each level there are feedback effects that reinforce the self-doubts of all the students who are struggling.

Of course, being surrounded by very able peers can confer benefits, too—the atmosphere may be more intellectually challenging, and one may learn a lot from observing others. We have no reason to think that small preferences are not, on net, beneficial. But contemporary racial preferences used by selective schools—especially those extended to blacks and Native Americans—tend to be extremely large, often amounting to the equivalent of hundreds of SAT points.

At the University of Texas, whose racial preference programs come before the Supreme Court for oral argument on October 10, the typical black student receiving a race preference placed at the 52nd percentile of the SAT; the typical white was at the 89th percentile. In other words, Texas is putting blacks who score at the middle of the college-aspiring population in the midst of highly competitive students. This is the sort of academic gap where mismatch flourishes. And, of course, mismatch does not occur merely with racial preferences; it shows up with large preferences of all types.

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

  • Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
  • Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
  • About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
  • Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
  • Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

Given the severity of the mismatch problem, and the importance of diversity issues to university leaders, one might expect that understanding and addressing mismatch would be at the very top of the academic agenda.


A powerful example of these problems comes from UCLA, an elite school that used large racial preferences until the Proposition 209 ban took effect in 1998. The anticipated, devastating effects of the ban on preferences at UCLA and Berkeley on minorities were among the chief exhibits of those who attacked Prop 209 as a racist measure. {snip}


And there was indeed a post-209 drop in minority enrollment as preferences were phased out. Although it was smaller and more short-lived than anticipated, it was still quite substantial: a 50 percent drop in black freshman enrollment and a 25 percent drop for Hispanics. {snip}

Throughout these crises, university administrators constantly fed agitation against the preference ban by emphasizing the drop in undergraduate minority admissions. Never did the university point out one overwhelming fact: The total number of black and Hispanic students receiving bachelor’s degrees were the same for the five classes after Prop 209 as for the five classes before.

How was this possible? First, the ban on preferences produced better-matched students at UCLA, students who were more likely to graduate. The black four-year graduation rate at UCLA doubled from the early 1990s to the years after Prop 209.

Second, strong black and Hispanic students accepted UCLA offers of admission at much higher rates after the preferences ban went into effect; their choices seem to suggest that they were eager to attend a school where the stigma of a preference could not be attached to them. This mitigated the drop in enrollment.

Third, many minority students who would have been admitted to UCLA with weak qualifications before Prop 209 were admitted to less elite schools instead; those who proved their academic mettle were able to transfer up to UCLA and graduate there.

Thus, Prop 209 changed the minority experience at UCLA from one of frequent failure to much more consistent success. {snip}

But university officials were unable or unwilling to advertise this fact. They regularly issued statements suggesting that Prop 209’s consequences had caused unalloyed harm to minorities, and they suppressed data on actual student performance. The university never confronted the mismatch problem, and rather than engage in a candid discussion of the true costs and benefits of a ban on preferences, it engineered secret policies to violate Prop 209’s requirement that admissions be colorblind.


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  • Puggg

    Affirmative action in university admissions started in the late 1960s as
    a noble effort to jump-start racial integration and foster equal
    opportunity. But somewhere along the decades, it has lost its way.

    Rained poured from the sky with the best of intentions.  But somewhere along the way, the rain got wet.

    • ed91

       as the story about eric holder demonstrated earlier in the week with the story about him in college in the late 60’s.

      can’t study, so he’s mad and gonna take it to the streets……… 

      hey, I’m all wee-weed up an’ it mus’ be whiteys fault!!

    • Oil Can Harry

      Gotta love when conservatives claim the anti-white Civil Rights movement started off with “noble” intentions but then tragically “lost its way”. 

      In reality, it was rotten to the core from Day One.

      • ed91

        A huge problem still is that so many whites cannot come to grips with the civil rights propaganda being simply a scam from the beginning.  They just can’t get their heads around it.  Elementary school is too hard to pull out by the roots.

  • Fighting_Northern_Spirit

    Academic mismatch = the verboten truth about black incapacity for achievement.

    I hate to say it, but I don’t particularly care if blacks “suffer” from it too.  The discrimination against whites is blatant, vicious and would be illegal against anyone else but whites.  There’s a tack among mainstream conservatives that argues about how poor blacks suffer under liberalism.  I don’t care.  Honestly.  The argument is not going to work, and has never done so, and they’re still going to screech at the most liberal white republicans that they’re worse than Hitler.  It’s time to get real.

    • pc must go

      Blacks can achieve… they just cannot achieve on the same level ON AVERAGE as whites. I know plenty of blacks who achieve plenty well in subjects like art, design, music, etc. 

      • Indiana Guy

        you mentions fields where there are no longer objective standards. If there is no possible way for anyone to fail in these fields then of course, blacks wont fail in them either. Success in those fields is very political, actual accomplishment and achievement are irrelevant. AS for art, go look at what is hanging on the walls of corporate America. Pure abstract BS, stuff a child could do. If the artists is a minority then of course their meager achievements are hailed as masterpieces. It is similar to the way corporate sports gushes over the mediocre performance of any black quarterback.

        • ed91


          watching Peyton or brady or Rodgers……….. reminds me of how Cam blew the frickin’ game last sunday and the 3 first mentioned would never lose one that way.
          Newton was thinking about how to dance after the first down and he fumbled the ball, the game.

      • In other words, future minimum wage workers.  Take a science or math course at any school (other than black colleges) and the room will rarely -if ever, have negroes in the class and those that are in there, drop out or fail.  I know, I’ve seen this over and over again.  Facts are facts; they need calculators to add and subtract.  Their math skills end when they need to know basic fractions.

    • pc must go

      And you’re right, there’s nothing very “academic” about most of them. But not everything in life is academics. 

  • pc must go

    I’ve known several blacks who flunked out freshman year or ran out of money… elite colleges often do a disservice to these blacks by academically mismatching them… Many leave after freshman year saddled with F’s on their transcript and $30,000 in student loan debt.

    Community College or vocational schools or state schools would have been more appropriate. 

    These colleges only care about themselves and boosting THEIR diversity numbers.

    It’s a known fact at elite institutions that by Senior year, 75%+ of the blacks who came in freshman year have disappeared. 

  • Defiant White

    QUOTE:  “The black four-year graduation rate at UCLA doubled from the early 1990s to the years after Prop 209.”

    RATE . . . repeat RATE . . .

    100 negroes enter college, 60 are affirmative action.  Four years later 20 graduate.   That’s 20%

    40 negroes enter college, 0 are affirmative action.  Four years later 20 graduate.  That’s 50%

    Amazing!   Right?

    No.  Just shows how morally bankrupt liberal social problems are to begin with.    The even sadder story . . . Who paid for those dumb blacks who later dropped out?

    Was it Obama money?  From his stash?  Did Obongo and Moochelle pony up?

    • ed91

       no!!   it was my tax money that paid for it.

  • Athling

    A people willfully advancing and financially supporting a hostile racially alien minority group over and above their own people is unprecedented in human history.

    Like “diversity” and affirmative action, which only benefit non-whites, this egalitarian disease will eventually bring Western civilization to its knees.

    • B

      So in reality, what good is the superior intellect of whites if it also includes the destruction of their own culture through diversity? From a evolutionary standpoint, the parasitic black population has a very effective strategy.

      • Athling

        I fully expect large masses of whites to awaken to the civilizational situation they are in. My only question is when or rather how much suffering will be required and will it be too late to roll back the civilizational changes made that would destroy any homogenous society anywhere on earth.

        White intellect is important. With regard to the topic at hand it is misfocused.

        • ed91

           yes, it’s bizarro world,

          I get to post one-liners until the spaghetti monster pulls the computer chord or the moderator gets tired of lame humor attempts and puns.

    • ed91

       that’s well said. 


  • APaige

    “The single biggest problem in this system—a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research—is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries.” Wrong. The single biggest problem is that it discriminates against smarter and more deserving students, based on race-and only race.
    I also laughed at “reinforce pernicious stereotypes”-a reinforced stereotype is the truth.

  • JohnEngelman

    I am old enough to remember when the clear majority of white blue collar workers voted Democrat. Affirmative action is one of the reasons that changed. It does not create opportunities. It takes them from those who are better qualified, and gives them to those who are less qualified.
    Affirmative action discriminates against white blue collar workers and in favor of blacks and Hispanics who in many cases come from more affluent families. It not only makes it more difficult for the children of white blue collar workers to go to college, it makes it more difficult for them to get jobs as police officers and fire fighters. 

  • What if, instead of the Obama that got torn apart by Romney tonight, we had an intelligent Black man?  They do exist.  And they’re not the ones selected for by affirmative action, thus guaranteeing less Black success than would otherwise occur.

    • ed91

       that’s where they screwed up………  they hurried obama into our system and he has too many flaws…..
      If they had found a better candidate, and like you said, they do exist, they would have succeeded.

      as for now, obama will go down as the largest scam since snake oil.

    • ed91

      they’ve tried to groom obmam for decades…………. he’d wanted to choom instead of doing the prep and the work……….

      they played their hand too quickly in 2008 after falling for all the obama gushing from earlier……..  the only reason they succeed back then(2008) is the guilt and help-the-loser gene inherent in white chicks.

      now da chickens be comin’ home t’ roost.

    • 5n4k33y3s

      Even Albert Einstein would strained by the cognitive dissonance of reconciling all the bad ideas of the “Progressive” ideology. Barack Obama is smart, but he cannot be verbally articulate while defending the indefensible in a debate with a well-prepared opponent.

      It’s like playing a game of chess with a two minute clock, and you’re down several pieces as well. Obama started the debate at a terrible disadvantage.

      The fact of the matter is, Obama himself is a beneficiary of affirmative action, and the son of Feminist, single mother. He can’t disentangle himself from what he has always known. He cannot be objective enough to realize that these were not optimal circumstances for instilling the time-tested values which have given rise to every great civilization.

      So he tries to defend the indefensible, which is very difficult to do in a debate which requires improvisation, not merely reciting platitudes. And his linguistic cortex seizes up as his cognition falters under the dissonance of bad ideas.

  • Goetz von Berlichingen

    Community colleges are actually great places for black HS grads to start.

    1.  They offer a low-cost “warning”; if a student can’t handle acedemic courses at a C.C., there is simply no way they will make it at a university.
    2.  They offer classes in skilled trades.
    3.  The cost is low. 
    4.  Community colleges do not limit enrollment the way four-year universities do, so the presence of unqualified blacks does not mean that qualified whites are being turned away.  Some classes that require specialized equipment may limit enrollment, but course catalogs typically include notes mentioning this fact, when and where it applies.

    The arguments against points (1) and (3) are easy enough to defeat: 

    1. Certainly someone who didn’t deserve his high school diploma won’t hack even a community college, but lots of our high schools regard themselves more as centers of “self-esteem” building, rather than learning, and the resulting product, weaned on dumbed-down curriculae and inflated grades, on graduation has no conception as to how mediocre they are, or how little they have really learned.  Would you rather these incompetoids have spots reserved for them at four-year universities?  The real cure is an overhaul of our high schools and an end to the nonsense that prevails there, but we all know this isn’t going to happen.  

    3. The cost is low because they are subsidized, but since community college budgets come out of the same pot as public schools and city libraries – i.e. property taxes – it isn’t completely unfair for them to let anyone who wants to spend some time and a little money on tuition and books have a crack at one.  The more adult students who end up at community colleges at least have better study habits than typical 18 year-old university freshmen and 19 year-old sophomores.

    This country would be a better place to live in if it reverted to being a meritocracy.  Instead we get folks who would have made reasonably good carpenters and cooks flunking out of universities in their first year because someone told them that studying software engineering would work for them.

    The one potential trap of a community college for someone who intends to transfer to a university and finish a four-year degree there is that they’ll have knocked out all the general education requirements and the lower-division classes for their major at the C.C. and after matriculation will be stuck with a rather difficult course load of nothing but upper-division “gut” classes, also required for their major.

  • Stan_Mute

    That’s because in this country the ONLY thing that matters is the black and brown. Every policy, every law, everything is to promote black and brown at all costs. NEVER is a thought given to the white and only rarely to the yellow.

  • Indiana Guy

    The University administrators suppress the data because it shows they are not necessary for the success of minorities. They have the obsamma attitude of  “you dih-in do dat, you be needin our hep to do tings” “You needs us, wee be necessary fo yo success”. The suppressed data shows that the administrators are not necessary at all.

  • ed91

    I think everyone saw AA in full blossom last night……….  obama trying to debate without a prompter…….  sheese…….  he looked and sounded the same to me that he has since I first saw/heard him on my radar in 2007 or whenever……….. 
    phony sob…………..  
    He’s who I thought he was!!!             a freakin’ front guy for a bunch of fools

  • ed91

     it’s made white men the 21st century nigg*rs…………. 

    oh boy!!

  • ed91

    wow………  another killer obama debate post:
     Posted by Chuck Moss on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 1:16 AM
    Hulk Romney defeats Barack Knotts

    Romney’s kicking Obama’s butt all around the stage. I certainly
    wasn’t expecting this great a show. Hulk Hogan chasing Don Knotts –
    refereed by Mr. Mago

    From The Detroit News:

  • ed91

     I’ve been in literature classes where they were more lost than lulu without spike.

    On the other hand, I saw several fairly smart blacks in a class or two.

  • As far as colleges go; letting stupid negroes in only sets them up for failure esp. in the sciences and math.  I would really like to see the stat’s on negroes getting in Harvard, Yale, etc and see how many actually graduate.  College, even community colleges, are not high school.  No passes grades if you can’t do the work due to low IQ and immature actions so common in the black world.

  • Goetz von Berlichingen

    He was allegedly some sort of “civil rights attorney” back in the rust belt, but that’s from Wikipedia, and when it comes to living political figures, the site is notoriously unreliable.  I only ever write naval history articles for Wiki, usually fleshing out stubs for obscure warship classes.

    As far as a President of the Law Review, who never published an article goes, I can think of a few two-word descriptions that could theoretically make it past a moderator on this site along with “Empty Suit”:

    “Poster Boy” (No HLR articles published)
    “Sock Puppet” (Teleprompter)
    “Marxist Shill” (“You didn’t build that.”)

    Perhaps these four are as mutually redundant as they are accurate.

  • ed91

     agreed ——-  some of the mulatto males are just smart enough to be pissed off.

    not sure why, but hey, who cares,

    I’m weeweed up and whitey done did it.

  • Michael C. Scott

    Affirmative Action is bad for everybody because it converts things like employment and college admissions and whether children can attend a neighborhood school within walking distance from home into a tax-funded, administration-heavy spoils system based on political patronage and racial tiering, rather than talent and hard work.

    Why does anyone think that most of the innovation in the US is coming out of private industry?  The universities lost their edge in research some 40 years ago.  Certainly private industry has been adversely affected by A.A., but the universities were much more severely impacted.  Affirmative Action really ought to be shortened to I.I. and not A.A., because what it really means is Institutionalized Incompetence.