In a matter of weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in the most important affirmative action cases in a generation, but it will do so based on incomplete and misleading information. The University of Michigan (UM), in defending its use of race as a factor in admitting students to its undergraduate and law schools, argued that the resulting “diversity” in the student body benefited all students. This has long been the claim of affirmative action advocates who want to minimize the inherent unfairness of subjecting whites and Asians to higher standards than blacks or Hispanics, but the argument doesn’t hold water.
The university’s assertions were based on a highly dubious piece of social science research, “The Expert Witness Report of Prof. Patricia Y. Gurin,” which purported to show that racial diversity improves the educational experiences of whites, Asians, blacks and Hispanics. Prof. Gurin’s research has been debunked by a number of scholars for demonstrating only that students who attend elite universities are more likely than others to hold politically liberal attitudes about such things as the environment and to be engaged in social activism. Now, it turns out, not only was the report a shoddy bit of research, but the university and Gurin chose to ignore contradictory findings within their own data.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, freelance journalist Chetly Zarko recently obtained the raw data of several years of unpublished research into racial attitudes among UM students, which was the basis of the Gurin report. The Michigan Student Study involved interviews with all incoming minority freshmen in 1990, as well as a sample of white students, all of whom were re-interviewed three times over the next four years. Dr. Robert Lerner and Dr. Althea Nagai, who have previously criticized the Gurin report, have now analyzed the unpublished data and conclude that, contrary to the university’s contention, the school’s affirmative action policies actually may have increased racial tensions among students and led to greater polarization among groups. (The study appears online at www.ceousa.org.)
According to Lerner and Nagai, the data show that the longer students attended UM, the more they perceived racial tension on campus. Perceptions of interracial tension increased dramatically from the first to second year among all groups, but especially among whites and Asians, where it tripled. Meanwhile, friendships between students of color and white students appeared to decline during the same period, so that only half of blacks perceived “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of interracial friendships by the end of their second year at UM, down from 81 percent at the beginning of freshman year. What’s more, between their first and last years at UM, white and Asian students increasingly voiced disagreement with the statement, “In the long run, a greatly increased enrollment of students of color will enhance the excellence of universities,” while blacks and Hispanics were somewhat more likely to agree with the statement after attending UM for four years.
For years, universities denied that they employed racial double standards in their admissions policies. When they were caught red-handed, they argued that racial preferences were necessary to promote “diversity.” When challenged to show that the government had a “compelling interest” in promoting diversity — the legal standard required under the U.S. Constitution — they claimed that diversity provided tangible educational benefits to all students.
Such claims are difficult to prove at best, but the University of Michigan’s efforts to do so look more like intentional deceit than honest research. If questions during the recent oral arguments on the Michigan cases are any indication, a number of Supreme Court justices nonetheless seready to accept the university’s declarations of the unalloyed benefit of discriminating against white and Asian applicants in order to admit more blacks and Hispanics.
But why should universities be taken at their word any more than other institutions that are charged with wrongdoing? Would even one Supreme Court justice accept at face value research by the tobacco industry showing the “benefits” of smoking? I doubt it. Let’s hope a majority of the Supreme Court can see through the University of Michigan’s subterfuge and recognize that it is never right for government to sanction racial discrimination, no matter who the victims happen to be.