A Devastating Case against Racial Preferences

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(Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to grant cert in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. It ought to do so and rewrite a terribly mistaken chapter in our law, namely the permission the Court has given to college officials to discriminate for and against students by putting them into racial categories.


Hot off the presses is a book that the justices should read — and our educational leaders as well. The book is A Dubious Expediency, edited by law professors Gail Heriot and Maimon Schwarzschild. In today’s Martin Center article, I review the book. Its eight essays will persuade any fair-minded reader that we would be far better off if the courts had just said “No” to the idea that colleges should, to paraphrase Orwell, declare that all students are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The book’s title comes from the first case where racial preferences were litigated — the Bakke case. What few people know is that when the Supreme Court of California decided that case in 1976, Justice Stanley Mosk, a dedicated civil-rights proponent, did say “No.” He wrote that we should not give up the principle of racial neutrality for the “dubious expediency” of supposedly helping people in certain groups. The subsequent history of that case was the oddly important decision by Justice Powell that racial preferences might be justified if there were educational benefits from it.

Ever since then, colleges and universities have been saying that there are such benefits, and courts have mostly deferred to their wishes.


What makes this book so powerful are the inside views we get of how racial preferences have actually worked. The official story is that they help put more students from “underrepresented minority” groups into America’s mainstream. On the contrary, we find, racial preferences have undermined academic standards, created a sense of entitlement, and hindered many minority students from achieving all that they could.

Perhaps the essay that will have the most impact on readers is that of Heather Mac Donald, who focuses on the damage that preferences are inflicting on science and technology, where high standards are giving way under the pressure for “equity” in results.

If you only read one book on educational policy this year, A Dubious Expediency should be it.


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