Diversity’s Discontents: The “Contact Hypothesis” Exploded

Russell K. Nieli

They see me as an affirmative action case.

—African American student at UCLA1

The Diversity Dodge

“A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” With these words, Harvard University officials effectively charmed Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who provided the key swing vote in the 1979 Bakke decision upholding the use of race as a “plus-factor” to further educational diversity in university admissions. Ever since Bakke, “diversity” has become the watchword of the defenders of racial preference policies both in college admissions and in many other areas of American life.

Diversity is said to bring about a host of educational benefits. A more diverse student body, Sandra Day O’Connor declared in the more recent Grutter decision reaffirming Powell’s Bakke holding, helps to promote “cross racial understandings,” breaks down “racial stereotypes,” and enables people “to better understand persons of different races.”2 From the very beginning, however, the diversity-produces-educational-benefits rationale has had something of an ad hoc—indeed bogus—quality to it.3 Before Bakke, policies of racial preferences in university admissions were almost never defended on educational enhancement grounds. The central argument put forth by their supporters was almost always compensatory justice. African Americans, it was said, deserve special treatment as simple pay-back for the grave wrongs visited upon them throughout the long and sorry history of American slavery and Jim Crow. Preferential treatment in the present, it was argued, is a proper means of rectifying the gross injustices done to an oppressed minority in the past. Racial preferences were also defended as urgently needed to jumpstart the growth of a stable black middle class—a justification that gained particular salience in the late 1960s in the wake of the extensive urban rioting of the period, much of it carried out by disaffected, lower-class black youth.4

One can get a good sense of the typical manner of defense of racial preference policies in the pre-Bakke era from the June 19, 1977, New York Times editorial, “Reparation, American Style,” a three thousand-word defense of the racial preference regime at the medical school of the University of California at Davis, where Allan Bakke had unsuccessfully applied for admission. While the Times editorial expounded at great length on the themes of compensatory justice and America’s pressing need for more black professionals (the editorial was one of the longest and most detailed in Times history), almost nothing was said about the great educational value of diversity within the educational arena itself. In this regard the Times commentary was typical of liberal journalism in the mid-1970s.

A year earlier, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter had similarly focused on compensatory justice as his central reason for supporting racial preferences. “[I believe] in insuring that all Americans should have not only equal opportunity,” Carter remarked at a May 1976 fund-raising breakfast in Cincinnati, “but should also have compensatory opportunity, if, through my influence or yours, they have been deprived of the opportunity of fully using their talents.” At a news conference later that day, he added: “You can provide equality of opportunity by law, but quite often that is not adequate.”5 Diversity-enhancement was not part of Carter’s affirmative action defense during his 1976 presidential campaign, and his views were emblematic of white liberal thinking at this time.

Only because of Lewis Powell’s subsequent declaration that compensatory justice and “social needs” arguments are insufficiently important to override the Fourteenth Amendment’s colorblind imperative—but that educational diversity and the educational benefits it allegedly brings about are concerns of sufficient constitutional seriousness to outweigh such an imperative—did the diversity-enhancement rationale assume its present dominance among supporters of race-based preferences in college and professional school admissions. Before Powell’s decision, diversity-enhancement arguments were rare to nonexistent.

“The raison d’être for race-specific affirmative action programs,” Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has trenchantly noted, “has simply never been diversity for the sake of education. The checkered history of ‘diversity’ demonstrates that it was designed largely as a cover to achieve other legally, morally, and politically controversial goals. In recent years, it has been invoked—especially in the professional schools—as a clever post facto justification for increasing the number of minority group students in the student body.”6

Dershowitz’s Harvard colleague Randall Kennedy has made similar comments casting doubt on the sincerity, if not the goodwill, of those who invoke “diversity” as their main reason for increasing the black presence in colleges and professional schools. “Let’s be honest,” Kennedy writes:

Many who defend affirmative action for the sake of “diversity” are actually motivated by a concern that is considerably more compelling. They are not so much animated by a commitment to what is, after all, a contingent, pedagogical hypothesis [i.e., that racial diversity promotes a richer campus-wide learning environment]. Rather, they are animated by a commitment to social justice. They would rightly defend affirmative action even if social science demonstrated uncontrovertibly that diversity has no effect (or even a negative effect) on the learning environment.7

While Kennedy is generally supportive of racial preference policies, he agrees with critics that the diversity rationale is a weak foundation upon which to base one’s defense of such policies, and is—at best—a secondary concern of those who support and maintain affirmative action policies for other reasons.8

The Contact Hypothesis

Social science has had a great deal to say about racial and ethnic diversity not only in recent years but in research going back more than half a century. The conclusions of this research, however, are not always congenial to those who equate greater demographic diversity with better intergroup understanding, reduced intergroup prejudice, and all the other positive benefits that are supposed to flow from greater exposure to demographically diverse populations. However, Randall Kennedy is correct in his prediction that such research has had little or no effect on the passion with which defenders of racial preference policies have continued to support their positions. This has been particularly true for the large body of social science research dating back to the 1940s that deals with what sociologists have called “the contact hypothesis.”

The contact hypothesis, which enjoyed its greatest popularity in the years immediately following World War II, views group-prejudice and the negative stereotyping of outsider groups as largely the product of ignorance, and believes that the key to dispelling such prejudice and stereotyping is greater contact between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Increased interethnic contact, the theory claims, brings about more harmonious relations between people of different social identity groups as they come to realize that their prejudices and negative stereotyping are based on false assumptions and gross overgeneralizations. As one proponent of school integration in the 1940s put it: “Where people of various cultures and races freely and genuinely associate, there tensions and difficulties, prejudices and confusions, dissolve; where they do not associate, where they are isolated from one another, there prejudice and conflict grow like a disease.”9

Supporters of the contact hypothesis in the immediate post-World War II era experienced two very weighty developments that seemed to lend a certain plausibility to their views. The first was the successful integration of the U.S. armed forces under the leadership of President Harry S. Truman, a white southerner who as a young man had seriously considered joining the Ku Klux Klan. Truman undoubtedly had political reasons for his integrationist stance, but he was also swayed by the fact that during the war against Nazi fascism and racism, black and white service personnel who shared common tasks and common quarters—such as aboard ships in the navy and merchant marines—often developed friendships and better understandings of one another despite the existence of formal segregation throughout the U.S. military. Early studies of WWII-era GIs showed that whites with the most contact with blacks during their military service often experienced a reduction in their prejudices.10 The integration of the military that took place during Truman’s second term would prove to be one of the most successful instances of black/white integration in American history.

The second development lending plausibility to the contact hypothesis was the successful integration of professional baseball—“the American Pastime”—and the rapid acceptance of black ballplayers on formerly all-white teams. Despite initial resistance, sports fans throughout America in 1947 came to appreciate the prowess of Jackie Robinson when he became the first African American to play in the major leagues and a key reason why the Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League pennant that year. (Robinson was named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.) Following the lead of Dodger owner Branch Rickey, many other major league teams over the next ten years aggressively recruited African American ballplayers for their organizations.

While the successful integration of professional baseball and the military lent a modicum of plausibility to the theory, it was clear to more discerning observers from the very beginning that the contact hypothesis, at least in its unrevised form, was untenable and could only be maintained by focusing on selective and in some ways highly atypical examples. An obvious and glaring counterexample in the 1940s and 1950s was the racial situation in the American South. While white southerners generally had much more daily contact with black people than whites in the northern and western states, one could hardly argue that their enhanced contact diminished their racial prejudices or out-group stereotyping. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy, published in the mid-1940s, had clearly demonstrated otherwise.

Those familiar with European culture in the beginning of the twentieth century had even more reason to doubt—if not ridicule—the contact hypothesis. Before World War I, in multiethnic Eastern European cities like Belgrade, Vienna, and Krakow different racial and ethnic groups often came into daily contact with one another, yet the result was hardly uniform ethnic harmony. Enmity, suspicion, and distrust were just as often the result of such ethnic mixing. The very words “the Balkans” conjured up vivid images of ethnic diversity combined with often violent ethnic strife. And in the aftermath of the Nazi era it was not lost on critics of the contact hypothesis that Adolf Hitler was a product of multiethnic, multicultural Vienna, a city that in Hitler’s youth had elected an openly anti-Semitic mayor (Karl Lueger), and in its unrivaled ethnic diversity was often a breeding ground for prejudice against Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Russians, and every other resident minority group.

Revising the Contact Hypothesis

If the contact hypothesis was to be rescued it clearly needed some critical pruning—if not drastic reformulation—that specified under what limited range of circumstances ethnic diversity might be expected to promote rather than diminish intergroup harmony and understanding. Researchers from the 1950s onward eventually identified several conditions that usually had to be met for diversity to have the favorable outcomes that contact theorists sought. Among these conditions were

  • equality of status between those making the contact,

  • a noncompetitive environment in which one ethnic group’s gain is not seen to be at the expense of another group’s welfare,

  • the opportunity to encounter sufficient numbers of people who counter the negative stereotype one group holds of the other,

  • the challenge of a common goal or task that requires some collective or cooperative effort to achieve,

  • the lack of artificiality or Potemkin-like quality to the interaction, and

  • the support of wider community norms and of those in authority.11

Using these criteria, it is easy to see why the integration of a professional sports team or the units of a national military fighting a popular war were as successful as they were, while the prospects for similar success under many other real-world conditions were much less favorable.

It became clear to the critics of the contact hypothesis that when conditions for successful integration are not favorable, more often than not enhanced social contact spells trouble—often Big Trouble. To the more naïve versions of the contact hypothesis critics sometimes juxtaposed a “conflict hypothesis,” which was said to describe more accurately typical relationships between people of demographically diverse populations in the real world. According to this more pessimistic view, people of different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and ethno-religious communities typically

  • harbor innate suspicions and distrust of one another,

  • find it more difficult to engage in cooperative ventures with one another than with members of their own group,

  • find it difficult to understand each other’s customs and folkways, and

  • display greater hostility or coldness toward one another if they live near each other and regularly interact than when they live more geographically separated lives.12

One policy implication frequently drawn from the conflict hypothesis is that under most circumstances identity-group diversity is something to be avoided, and that it is usually best to have people of the same racial, ethnic, ethno-religious, or ethno-linguistic communities concentrated in geographic areas that are separated from one another, whether those areas encompass a nation-state (Japan, Denmark), a region of a larger state (the Kurds in Iraq, the Basques in Spain), separate halves of an island (Greeks and Turks on Cyprus), a partitioned territory (India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, Israel-Palestine), or simply local neighborhoods of the same city (Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, the Chinese in San Francisco’s Chinatown). Such arrangements, it is said, reduce intergroup hostilities and allow people to associate with those with whom they have most in common and with whom they feel most comfortable. For conflict theorists the contact hypothesis is turned on its head: extensive interethnic contact and diversity are seen as harbingers of tension and distrust. In the realm of inter-group relations, “good fences make good neighbors.”

But Isn’t the U.S. Different?

Many readers will bristle at the conflict hypothesis and its claims. Aren’t Americans the shining example of its disconfirmation? Isn’t America the great melting pot where the tribal enmities of the Old World were left behind and a new unity forged from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious strands? Doesn’t E Pluribus Unum signify not only high-minded principle but to some extent actual reality in the U.S.? Outside of the Old South, hasn’t contact between people of diverse origins led, as contact theorists predict, to mutual enrichment and a general reduction in prejudice? Doesn’t contact theory, even in its unreconstructed form, accurately describe substantial portions of American racial and ethnic history?

Answers to such questions call for nuance, for America is clearly not the former Yugoslavia or any of the ethnically-divided states in post-colonial Africa. Intergroup violence has certainly been much less pronounced and integration far better achieved in America than in almost any other large multiethnic, multireligious society. As former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once remarked, “No other nation has so successfully combined people of different races and nations within a single culture.”13 Surely, to some extent, America can be described as an integration success story.

Nonetheless, getting people of widely divergent social identities to coexist harmoniously and cooperatively is always a daunting task. And while the U.S. has unquestionably been better at it than many other demographically diverse nations, it should never be forgotten that the process of integration does not flow naturally from mere contact and propinquity and certainly not by the simplistic mechanisms that contact theorists invoke. As the history of ethnic and other communal conflicts around the world show, in its unrevised form the contact hypothesis is mere wishful thinking—and those who implicitly rely upon some version of it to defend current racial preference policies in America either delude themselves or knowingly seek to delude others.

That the mere contact between diverse identity groups is no guarantee that prejudice will be reduced or communal cooperation enhanced has been powerfully confirmed by the recent scholarship of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who throughout his career has been interested in the phenomena of interpersonal trust and the social capital and social cooperation that flow from such trust. In an early study of regional differences in modern Italy, Putnam argued that the vastly different levels of civic engagement and social trust displayed by the populations living in the northern and southern parts of Italy were largely responsible for the very different levels of economic development of those two regions.14 Like Edward Banfield before him, Putnam in his Italian journeys found pervasive envy and distrust among southern Italians for everyone outside one’s immediate family, and a corresponding inability to network or cooperate with others to achieve such common goals as economic prosperity or reducing government corruption. The low-trust cultures of southern regions like Calabria and Sicily, Putnam argued, were largely responsible for those regions’ economic backwardness and their inability to overcome many of the negative political and social elements that Putnam believed were inheritances from a corrupt, feudal-authoritarian past.

In more recent years Putnam has studied the decay in social connectedness and civic engagement in the United States manifested in well-documented declines in such organizations as the Red Cross, parent-teachers associations, the Boy Scouts, fraternal groups like the Masons and Jaycees, labor unions, the League of Women Voters, as well as organized bowling leagues. This last item inspired the title for his widely read Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000). While certain dues-and-newsletter organizations like the AARP and the Sierra Club have experienced huge growth in recent decades, these organizations, says Putnam, act more like paid lobby groups whose members rarely know or even meet one another. They are clearly not organizations that have positive spill-over effects in fostering social capital, human connectedness, or enhanced human understanding between neighbors and friends. Belonging to them is little different than bowling alone.

In his Bowling Alone study Putnam drew upon the nationally representative General Social Survey, which indicated an overall decline in the frequency with which Americans spend social evenings with neighbors, and a similar decline in the belief that people can generally be trusted. The proportion of Americans agreeing with the statement that “most people” can be trusted, Putnam points out, declined from 58 percent to 37 percent between 1960 and 1993. These changes are all the more striking because the educational level of the population was rising during this period, and past research has shown positive relationships between schooling and levels of trust and sociability. While Americans were becoming better educated, they were also becoming more socially isolated and more distrustful of one another.

In his preliminary work on this phenomenon, Putnam named several important factors that might be responsible for the loss of social connectedness and the decline in civic engagement, including the high incidence of family breakup and divorce; the entrance of more women into the workforce (and subsequent decline in organizations like the PTA and the Red Cross, which traditionally relied upon the labor of female homemakers); and the radical privatizing and individualizing of entertainment resulting from the growth of television-watching as America’s foremost pastime.15

In his more recent studies, Putnam has looked at the factor of ethnic diversity and its effects on the formation of “social capital,” defined as the formation of social networks and “the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” associated with such networks. What Putnam found was arresting, and certainly presents a challenge to those who believe that the integration of racially and ethnically diverse peoples into a decent, caring, civic-minded society is anything other than a difficult, long-term task. Ethnic diversity in contemporary America, Putnam found, has few of the benefits multiculturalists and contact theorists claim it has, and has some serious disadvantages that even conflict theorists have not generally ascribed to it.

Putnam’s most recent study is based on the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, a nationwide survey of approximately thirty thousand Americans, including representative samples of populations drawn from forty-one highly varied communities from across America. These individual community surveys form the heart of Putnam’s study, and range from large urban centers with populations of a million or more, to smaller cities, suburban areas, and rural towns. Four states—Montana, Indiana, Delaware, and New Hampshire—were also among the forty-one communities surveyed.

Consistent with other studies, but contrary to the view of many proponents of multiculturalism and continuing large-scale immigration, Putnam found that interracial trust—that is, the degree to which blacks, whites, Asian Americans, and Latinos said they trusted members of the three broad outsider-groups to which they did not belong—varied directly with the degree of ethno-racial homogeneity of the area in which they lived. “Inter-racial trust is relatively high in homogeneous South Dakota and relatively low in heterogeneous San Francisco or Los Angeles,” Putnam reports. “The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them.”16

Those who told researchers that they trusted members of other races “a lot” were much more common in places like Lewiston, Maine, Bismarck, New Hampshire, and the state of Montana—where whites constitute the great majority of the population (and non-whites are not frequently encountered in most community settings)—than in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or East Bay, California, where the populations are much more racially and ethnically diverse. This finding is all the more remarkable—and all the more inconsistent with contact theory—when one considers that lower levels of interracial trust were often expressed by residents of some of the more politically liberal areas of the country, where norms of political correctness and socially acceptable response patterns might be expected to dampen substantially the level of ethnic distrust to which respondents (particularly whites) would freely admit. The social pressures to affirm publicly one’s trust in members of other ethno-racial groups is almost certainly greater in places like San Francisco and North Minneapolis than in places like Montana or rural South Dakota, and suggests that the real trust-gap in heterogeneous areas is even greater than the Community Benchmark Survey data indicates. At least in terms of contemporary America, the data from this survey seems to confirm the view that in interracial and interethnic relations, familiarity breeds distrust.

Having surveyed much of the world literature on these issues, Putnam was not entirely surprised by these findings. They were consistent with many other studies, using many different methodologies, carried out in many different places worldwide. People of different racial and ethnic groups have a harder time getting along with—and trusting—one another than people of the same race or ethnic group. And, the more numerous the members of the outsider group and the more contact people have with them, the greater the interracial distrust.

Putnam’s study, however, probed further than most earlier studies in asking a key question—whether increased racial and ethnic diversity has any effect on the degree of solidarity and social capital that exists within individual ethno-racial communities. Although this issue is rarely raised, conflict theorists apparently assumed that if increased ethnic heterogeneity has any effects within a group it is probably to strengthen bonds of ethnic solidarity and mutual support. Just as populations often pull together when engaged in a war with an outside enemy, the presence of diverse ethnic groups in the same area, it might be supposed, will increase the level of cooperation and trust within each of the separate groups.

Whether or not such a relationship exists elsewhere, Putnam’s study found that the very opposite relationship obtains within the United States. Not only do people in the more diverse communities display lower trust for those who are members of other ethnic and racial groups, they also display lower trust for members of their own group. The distrust engendered by ethnically and racially diverse communities, Putnam believes, seems to have a strong psychological spill-over effect that harms relationships and the formation of social capital even within one’s own ethnic group: “[I]n more diverse settings,” Putnam writes, “Americans distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do.”17 The distrust engendered by ethnic diversity seems to engender distrust for human beings more generally.

Besides the trust question, respondents in the Community Benchmark Survey were asked a battery of questions designed to assess the relationship between ethnic diversity and various correlates of social capital: participation in community projects, registering to vote, having positive attitudes towards the efficacy of social action, etc. As with the trust question, these other measures of social cooperation and community engagement were found to be negatively correlated with ethnic heterogeneity (i.e., the greater the ethnic heterogeneity the less the cooperation). In areas of the country with greater ethno-racial diversity, Putnam found, respondents tended to display

  • a lower frequency of registering to vote,

  • fewer close friends and confidants,

  • a lower likelihood of working on a community project,

  • less confidence that others will cooperate to solve collective action problems like water and energy conservation,

  • a lower likelihood of giving to charity or doing volunteer work,

  • lower confidence in local leaders, local politicians, and the news media,

  • greater frequency of participation in protest marches combined with a lower sense of efficacy that one’s actions can make a difference,

  • lower perceived quality of life,

  • lower overall happiness, and

  • more time spent watching television and greater agreement with the statement that “television is my most important form of entertainment.”18

It’s a long list, and while Putnam found some measures of social engagement that were not negatively correlated with ethnic diversity, including the important factor of religious activity, the overall pattern, he says, is unmistakable: people in the more ethnically diverse communities in America tend to become much more socially isolated than those living in more homogeneous communities. There is a decline in social solidarity, community activities, and general neighborliness in such communities as people tend to withdraw and become alienated from others nearby (including members of their own ethnic group). In Putnam’s words, people under such circumstances “hunker down” and “pull in like a turtle.”19 Although Putnam believes that in the long run racial and ethnic diversity can have positive benefits in a society seeking integration, in the short run its effects are overwhelmingly negative. Social isolation, alienation, and anomie are its immediate results.

Putnam’s bleak conclusions about diversity are offset by a number of important qualifications that should also be mentioned. To begin with, he believes that the problems of ethnic and racial diversity can be mitigated in time, presumably as racial and ethnic consciousness gives way, at least in part, to a more encompassing national or universal human consciousness. To date, however, he has said little about this process. But even in the short run Putnam holds that diversity is not all bad, and can sometimes be a spur to greater creativity, particularly in educational and business settings when diverse group members work as a team to complete a task or solve a problem. In this context Putnam refers favorably to economist Scott Page’s recent book, The Difference, which extols the virtues of intellectual diversity in group settings in moving toward more rapid and effective problem-solving.20

America has been a magnet for many of the world’s most creative and industrious people, and the nation has benefitted greatly by this influx of immigrants, Putnam says. Not only have immigrants been disproportionately represented as winners of such high honors as Nobel prizes, Academy awards, Kennedy Center awards, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, but they have taken over many critical low-end jobs for which there are not enough Americans available. In addition, with their high birth rates immigrants are helping to offset the impending fiscal effects of low native birth rates and the retirement of the baby boom generation.

Immigration and the increase in demographic diversity it brings about are thus clearly a mixed bag for Putnam. What is so illuminating and refreshing about his work is that he looks unblinkingly at the dark side of these developments and reports research that runs counter to the celebratory rhetoric one often hears in academic circles about the unalloyed good that increased racial and ethnic diversity are supposed to bring about. His writing is in the best tradition of social realism and brings to light what Max Weber called the “inconvenient facts” (unbequeme Tatsachen) that social science is duty-bound to investigate. Putnam’s research provides the strongest case to date against the more optimistic claims of those who believe that merely getting diverse racial and ethnic groups to live and work in proximity will automatically produce beneficial social outcomes. Naïve contact theory has never been submitted to a more devastating critique.

Racial Diversity in the Academy

Though the contact hypothesis, at least in its unmodified form, has been thoroughly discredited by half a century of research and is not currently maintained by any reputable social scientist, it is often the implicit foundation of the defense of current affirmative action policies in American universities and of the claims of educational enhancement used to justify them. If we just get all those farm boys from Idaho, those Irish kids from Boston, those Mexicans from the barrio, and those black youth from inner-city Detroit together on the same college campus—even if it requires a good deal of racial “plus-factoring” by the admissions committee to do so— educational benefits will spontaneously flow and enhance the lives of all concerned. Intergroup contacts will abound, college students will learn from one another, prejudices will diminish, and mutual understanding and goodwill will stamp the overall character of campus life.

Alas, things haven’t exactly worked out that way. While students of different races and ethnicities coexist peacefully on most college campuses today and treat each other civilly, the ubiquity of self-segregated cafeterias and social groups, the paucity of cross-racial friendships outside of the varsity sports teams and a few other extracurricular activities, and the pervasive suspicion that black and Hispanic students are not as qualified as Asian and white all clearly indicate that something has gone radically wrong with the integrationist vision. Campus life is not the way defenders of racial preferences told us it would be.

All this should come as no surprise, however, since few of the factors identified by sociologists as preconditions for beneficial intergroup interactions are met on the contemporary college campus that indulges in strong affirmative action preferences. When glaring admission preferences are given to black and Hispanic students over whites and Asians one can hardly speak of members of the ensuing student body as having “equal status.” From the start, entering freshmen at the more competitive colleges begin to think in terms of “the regular admits,” accepted on the basis of their past academic performance, and “the affirmative action admits,” accepted on the basis of race. Resentments inevitably abound, especially among white and Asian students who remember their disappointed high school friends and classmates who received rejections from many of the better colleges and universities to which they applied while some of their much less qualified black and Hispanic peers were accepted at those very same institutions.21

Not only do racial preferences run counter to the widely shared belief that academic merit should be the main criteria for university admissions, but the pervasiveness of racial preferences at almost all selective institutions creates an upward-ratcheting system in which black and Hispanic students are typically placed at institutions in which whites and Asians clearly have the upper hand in terms of past academic performance and general intellectual ability. The common stereotype of black and Hispanic students as intellectually inferior to whites, instead of being weakened by actual contact with many group members who counter the stereotype, is powerfully reinforced.

Under such circumstances it becomes a rational strategy for students to avoid associating with members of those demographic groups that have been admitted under vastly lowered standards when making such important academic decisions as whom to choose as one’s lab partner or as members of one’s study group. (Economists refer to this kind of avoidance behavior as “rational” or “statistical” discrimination). Heightened intergroup tension and racial self-segregation are the inevitable result of such developments, making true friendships and understandings across racial divides ever less likely. The terms of the interracial contact on affirmative action campuses could hardly be less propitious to furthering the integrationist goals that affirmative action supporters claim they favor.

Though empirical research on the topic is limited, we know from existing research that all is not well with race relations on college campuses and that many white and Asian students deeply resent current racial preference policies. One of the more revealing results comes from an ongoing longitudinal study supervised by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey. Sponsored by the pro-affirmative action Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Massey study has been tracking college students who entered as freshmen at more than two dozen selective colleges in the fall of 1999. The Massey team found that white and Asian students express a substantial degree of “social distance” between themselves and those described as the “beneficiaries of affirmative action,” although they express no such distance between themselves and either blacks or Hispanics as a group. The admissions processes at the universities surveyed “operate to produce a freshman class composed of two very distinct subpopulations,” Massey and his team report. “On one hand are whites and Asians, and on the other are Latinos and blacks.”22 Not surprisingly, students quickly come to understand the racial preference system and to perceive blacks and Hispanics as academically under-qualified and Asians as academically overqualified.

Although the Massey researchers clearly harbor no predisposition against affirmative action policy, they are forced to conclude that this perception has had a pernicious effect on campus race relations and may undermine the academic self-confidence of those in the lower-achieving groups. The perceptions of social distance from affirmative action beneficiaries, they write,

carry important implications for the general tone of race relations on campus because one stereotype that emerges...is that without affirmative action most black and Latino students would not be admitted. To the extent that such beliefs are widespread among white students at elite institutions, they will not only increase tensions between whites and minorities on campus; they will also increase the risk of stereotype threat by raising anxiety among minority students about confirming these negative suspicions.23

Other observers of the contemporary campus scene have come to similar conclusions. The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, who for many years taught undergraduates at Berkeley, concludes from his extensive personal experience that racial preference policies are a major source of interracial suspicion and alienation on elite college campuses. This, he says, is due primarily to the doubts they sow in everyone’s mind concerning the intellectual competence of their supposed beneficiaries. “Black students often come to a selective campus,” McWhorter writes, “wary that white students suspect them of being affirmative-action admits and thus not equally qualified.” He continues:

With it widely known among a student body that most minority students were admitted with test scores and GPAs which would have barred white and Asian applicants from consideration, it is difficult for many white students to avoid beginning to question the basic mental competence of black people as a race....A white person need not be a racist to start wondering why black students need affirmative action even when growing up no poorer than they did....This can only leave many young whites with a private suspicion that blacks simply aren’t as swift, which will in turn encourage suspicion in black students, and thus perpetuate interracial alienation on campus and undermine the mutual respect that successful integration requires.24

McWhorter also believes that racial preference policies in colleges and professional schools create perverse incentives for the targeted minorities insofar as those who know they will be favored in the selection process have every reason to cut themselves a good deal of slack and work less hard in school than the whites and Asians with whom they will be competing. McWhorter says this is exactly how he behaved when he was a high school student, resting content with grades substantially below those he could have achieved with a little extra effort. From the time he was ten years old, he says, he knew there was something called “affirmative action” that made it much easier for blacks like him to get into good colleges than people of other races. Other black critics of affirmative action have reported similar experiences.25

Another study that casts doubt on the wisdom of campus racial preference policy comes from the distinguished political scientist Stanley Rothman and his colleagues. The Rothman group examined whether or not enrollment diversity on college campuses, and more specifically the presence of large numbers of blacks, improves the overall educational experience that students feel they receive and furthers interracial understandings and better relations between people of diverse racial backgrounds. Data for the study was provided by extensive telephone interviews with random samples of students, faculty, and administrators from 140 American colleges and universities carried out by the research firm of Angus Reid. Contrary to what contact theorists and defenders of racial preference policy claim, Rothman and his colleagues found that none of the educational benefits usually ascribed to racial diversity were substantiated by the Angus Reid data. In fact, the statistically significant associations that were found indicated the opposite:

As the proportion of black students rose, student satisfaction with their university experience dropped, as did their assessments of the quality of their education and the work ethic of their peers. In addition, the higher the enrollment diversity, the more likely students were to say that they personally experienced discrimination. The same pattern of negative correlations between educational benefits and increased black enrollment appeared in the responses of faculty and administrators.26

Rothman and his colleagues believe that many of these negative correlations may be the result of current affirmative action policy because the same correlations are not found when “diversity” is defined in terms of increased Asian enrollment. The increased presence of Asians on campus, they report, seems to have a number of positive effects in terms of the assessment students and others give of the various outcome variables explored in their study. This, they say, is probably a result of the fact that Asians typically make it into competitive colleges on the basis of their academic merit, not their race. “Since higher percentages of black and Hispanic students are produced in part by affirmative action,” they write, “while the same is not true for Asian-American students, it may be that affirmative action places students in academic environments for which they are unsuited, leading to tension and dissatisfaction all around.”27

Like the Massey group, Rothman and his colleagues found that all is not well in terms of race relations on college campuses and that at least part of the problem stems from the different admissions standards applied under affirmative action programs. Once again, we find the Pollyannaish optimism of contact theory called into question. Merely getting people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds together on the same campus does not guarantee valuable educational and culturally enriching outcomes. Under the wrong circumstances the net effect of such contact may indeed be harmful. And race-based admissions standards that are resented by large segments of the student body clearly constitute “the wrong circumstances.”

Some Final Reflections on Mismatching and the Downward Parasitism Problem

Our current upward-ratcheting regime in college admissions often places black and Hispanic students in institutions one, two, or three levels of selectivity above the level they would have been placed in without preferences. The system has many harmful consequences that critics have long explored, but one seldom mentioned consequence is what might be called the “downward parasitism” (or “downward raiding”) problem.

The problem can be simply stated as follows: When a Tier-I school (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford) admits an “underrepresented minority student” who, in the absence of racial preferences, would have attended a Tier-II (e.g., Tufts, Lehigh, UCLA) or Tier-III school (e.g., Boston University, Rutgers, Tulane), the students at these Tier-II and Tier-III schools are denied the diversity-enhancement value that these upwardly ratcheted minority students could have provided. The Tier-II and Tier-III schools then feel pressured to engage in similar “downward parasitism” by admitting black and Hispanic students through their own preference programs who, in the absence of such preferences, would have attended less competitive Tier-IV and Tier-V schools (and could have contributed to a healthy kind of demographic diversity at those schools). One school’s diversity gain is always another’s diversity loss. Even on its own terms it is not clear how racial diversity is enhanced by the current upward-ratcheting system, which does nothing to alter the “pipeline” of eligible black and Hispanic high school graduates (and as McWhorter and others suggest may seriously constrict the pipeline because of the negative incentives to strive for excellence that racial preferences create).28

One can’t, however, take the diversity-enhancement argument on its own terms, since it is implicitly based on a naïve version of the contact hypothesis that fails to understand the limited conditions under which racial contact is likely to further rather than inhibit interracial understanding and intergroup harmony. There are good diversities and bad diversities, and diversities brought about artificially through racial preferences—ones that reinforce negative stigmas and stereotypes about the mental competence of those in the targeted groups, which are widely viewed as unfair, and which serve to heighten racial tensions on campus—are clearly in the noxious category. The upward ratcheting and upward mismatching of the affirmative action system insures that good diversity is always replaced by bad.

This raises the question why such destructive policies persist. This topic is too vast to be taken up on this occasion but a first approach to an answer would recall the suggestions of Alan Dershowitz and Randall Kennedy to the effect that “diversity” often serves as a cover for more controversial concerns—including “social justice,” a perceived need to elevate more blacks to leadership positions, the need of white people to expiate their guilt and protect themselves against charges of racism, etc.—that cannot be stated publicly, either because of Bakke-derived constitutional constraints or fear of public backlash.29

What can be said with absolute certainty is that the terms of interracial contact on college campuses today are highly unfavorable to achieving the goals that racial pluralists and diversity advocates say they support. The upward ratcheting and mismatching of targeted minority students creates a campus-wide atmosphere that practically guarantees that the integrationist goals of diversity advocates will never be adequately achieved. Those goals, however, are surely noble and worthy of being pursued.

If we really want to create a healthy, dignified, egalitarian diversity on college campuses today—one that demeans no group, makes no group feel superior, and really does enrich the educational and cultural experience of all parties concerned—we must move to end affirmative action mismatching and return to the simple idea that college admissions decisions must be race- and ethnicity-neutral. This was the original ideal enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which college administrators so unwisely abandoned in the early 1970s with all the harmful consequences that have since then ensued.30 A return to the wisdom that drove the original civil rights movement—including Justice Harlan’s ringing cry in the Plessy case that “our Constitution is color-blind”—would have a salutary effect throughout American society. Among the greatest beneficiaries of such a move would be the rising generation of college students at the more selective colleges and universities.

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