Some thoughts and evidence on racial preferences in admissions
They're probably effective, but Americans really don't like them, and they might be illegal. So what do we do?
Well, it looks like America’s national conversation about race is about to get another topic of discussion: The Supreme Court has decided to hear challenges to racial preferences in college admissions, starting in October. The last time SCOTUS adjudicated this topic was in 2003, when it declared that racial preferences could stay, but only if colleges used them as one of many factors, and with an eye toward ensuring a diverse student body. Now, with a more conservative set of justices on the bench, many experts expect the court to overturn that ruling and just ban racial preferences outright.
It’s worth noting that unlike with abortion, where SCOTUS’ recent moves to weaken Roe v. Wade go against the general lean of public opinion, this would probably be a popular move. A strong majority of Americans of all races and political parties opposes the use of race as a factor in college admissions:
It’s only explicitly using race as a factor in admissions that Americans oppose. Gallup surveys confirm this dichotomy — people are in favor of “affirmative action”, but oppose explicit racial preferences:
Americans' top-of-mind reactions to the term affirmative action are generally positive. Gallup asks a straightforward question about affirmative action without a definition or explanation -- "Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?" -- and as of Gallup's last asking in 2018, 61% of Americans were in favor, while 30% were opposed. Support has increased from the range of 47% to 50% who were in favor in 2001, 2003 and 2005…
Americans are also solidly behind the broad concept of equal opportunity and improving the position of racial minorities in society -- the underlying rationale for affirmative action…
Despite this majority consensus for the general concept of affirmative action and the need for more action on reducing racial inequities, public support appears significantly lower when questions ask about policies that explicitly take race into account to achieve these objectives…72% of U.S. adults oppose giving preference to Black Americans in hiring and promotion, including 43% who say they oppose strongly…[T]hese results highlight the complexities of public opinion when considerations of affirmative action get down to specifics.
A cynic might interpret this disparity as a form of hypocrisy — people wanting to think they’re in favor of racial equality but shying away when the rubber hits the road. But I think the fact that Black Americans also display this divergence in poll responses suggests that something subtler — and more reasonable — is at work here. I’ll speculate more about this later on, and suggest some ideas for how to square the circle.
But for now, let’s think about the policy itself. Social science research can’t tell you what’s right and wrong, nor can it adjudicate the law. But it can offer some information about what’s at stake — about what effects different policies have. Americans want policies to increase opportunity for historically disadvantaged minorities, but they don’t want explicit racial preferences. So let’s take a look at the evidence on affirmative action programs, including racial preferences, and see what works and what doesn’t work.
Racial preferences in college admissions: The evidence
One theory of racial preferences is that they improves minority achievement by spurring minority kids to greater efforts. If Black kids, for example, feel that the deck of the education system is stacked against them, they may not try hard in school; if they know there are programs out there to help them get into top colleges, they may take their schooling more seriously.