Mike Kueber's Blog

March 2, 2012

Affirmative action is back in the news

Filed under: Education,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:23 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recently announced that it would review the continued use of affirmative action by the University of Texas, and this announcement has prompted widespread media coverage, both national and local, on this still controversial subject. 

Nationally, Time magazine published an interesting article that reported on the so-called Mismatch effect:      

  • Since the court last reviewed college affirmative action in 2003, a body of empirical research has emerged showing that racial preferences can hurt their purported beneficiaries by catapulting them into schools for which they are inadequately prepared. Placed in classrooms pitched above their current level of knowledge, they learn less than they would if they were among peers whose academic skills more closely mirror their own. This “mismatch” effect is particularly relevant to the University of Texas case, Fisher v. University of Texas, because the university claims that it needs to admit students according to race in order to achieve “classroom diversity.” Mismatch theory predicts — correctly — that using racial preferences will have the opposite effect.

A leading columnist with the Washington Post – Esther Cepeda – made a similar argument in her column based on her personal experience:   

  • I graduated from a diverse public college preparatory school and attended an equally diverse public university where no one ever felt anyone else got in because of affirmative action.  My strong undergraduate performance earned me a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious marketing graduate program at Northwestern University.  I think of it as the year I formally became a “minority.” In my classes I was the official Hispanic.  It was obvious that most of my classmates knew I was there on a full scholarship and assumed that I’d gotten into school through an official attempt at diversity.  Here’s the thing, though: that may have been exactly why I got in. And guess what? I was not academically equal to my peers and woefully unprepared for the math-heavy statistical analysis needed to complete the basic courses in data mining.  Low first-quarter grades put me on academic probation. I ended up leaving school without getting that graduate degree — another statistic showing that minority access to college does not guarantee completion.  It was painful preparation for the “real world” because since then I’ve not held a job — in teaching, government or journalism — where someone didn’t imply, or flat out declare, that I got it just for being Hispanic.

Cepeda concluded, “Diversity on college campuses is vital to a diverse workforce. But diversity must not be achieved through college-level quota systems that might admit students who are not as academically prepared as their peers.”

Today, the San Antonio Express-News decided to jump in the fray by publishing side-by-side columns on the issue of affirmative action.  Because the Express-News editorial page is liberal, it decided that fair & balanced opinions would consist of a far-left column vs. a far, far left columnist.

The far, far-left column was contributed by Fred Williams.  He argued that affirmative action as a form of reparations for the past sins of America was just, no matter that the people being penalized were not responsible for the sins or the people being rewarded were not harmed by the past sins.  

The far-left column was contributed by Ruben Navarrette.  He opined that whether to continue affirmative action depends on what its goal is:

  • If the goal is to make amends for past injustice, then we should end it. Growing up Mexican American in the Southwest in the 1940s and ’50s, my parents routinely faced discrimination. But that should not entitle my children, who are being raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, to have a leg up when they apply to college.  But if the goal of the program is to produce leaders who look like America in the 21st century, we should ratchet it up. U.S. Census officials estimate that, in two decades, whites will be a statistical minority in the U.S. population. It would be self-defeating to educate mostly those people who look like the country that we used to be rather than the one we’ve become.

Navarrette conveniently fails to address directly the argument that affirmative action fails to comport with the constitutional requirement to treat all people equally.  In fact, he concludes his column with a snarky criticism of white people who have the nerve to ask for equal treatment:

  • Students and parents dread going to the mailbox on spring days and finding letters that begin: “Thank you for your interest. But we regret to inform you …” When those letters come, it hurts. And it helps to blame someone. Why not the Latino or African American classmate who fared better in the admissions process?  Right about here, a good parent would resist the urge to feed his child’s newfound victimhood. Instead, he should explain that life is full of failure and that we have to learn from it and press on. Or, if you’re not up to that, mom and dad, you can always take the easy way out and hire a lawyer.

For good measure, the Express-News’ Metro columnist O.Ricardo Pimentel also decided to share his thoughts on affirmative action today.  He probably should have coordinated his thoughts with Navarrette because they both said essentially the same thing – i.e., Hispanics are a booming demographic so college admissions should be adjusted to reflect that:

  •  If you’re keeping score of such things, in UT admissions (as in life generally), it’s still a blowout for whites. “Race neutral” may be in the eye of the beholder, not so neutral after all. Then there’s this: Anglo population here and elsewhere will be declining. The Latino population in particular among minorities is already booming. And they are lagging in all those important indicators. Focused attention is precisely what’s needed if the state is to prosper. How do you focus without focusing? It starts with getting Texas minorities ready for college but also key: Getting them in, realizing that even if they aren’t 10 percenters, their chances of succeeding in school and in life far exceeds that percentage.

If you understand what Pimentel is trying to communicate, your comprehension skills are greater than mine.

Most court experts expect the affirmative action practices by the University of Texas to be struck down, but there is much uncertainty regarding whether the opinion will be narrowly limited to the University of Texas practices or broadly applied the practices of public universities everywhere.  In the long-term, just as same-sex marriage is almost inevitable, I suspect that the death of affirmative action is similarly inevitable.



  1. Sounds to me like they are saying “Latinos bring less to the game, so we should lower the expected outcomes, ergo lower admissions standards.” That might not work in a “flat world” with global competition on all fronts and in all aspects of economics…


    Comment by Q — March 3, 2012 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  2. Mike,

    I like the topics you share.


    Comment by Q — March 3, 2012 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

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