Selling Merit Down the River

Russell K. Nieli

The River Pilots are at it again. And they are as confused as ever.1 Their latest endeavor, Taming the River (River III, 2009), offers a detailed analysis of the results of two sets of questionnaires given to a representative sample of college students at twenty-eight selective colleges and universities who matriculated as freshmen in the fall of 1999. Like their earlier work, The Source of the River (River II, 2003), which examined the achievement of these same students to the midpoint of their freshman year, this newest installment looks at a blinding complexity of student characteristics and attitudes and their relationship to various outcome variables including school retention and student grades traced further on into the students’ college life.

This ongoing longitudinal study was inspired by The Shape of the River (River I, 1998), written by former Princeton president William Bowen and former Harvard president Derek Bok, which used a different database—the College and Beyond Survey—to analyze the progress of students who had attended more than two dozen selective American colleges and universities. All three River books, although they have multiple authors and despite the fact that River I specifically claims not to have any policy agenda but to be merely gathering facts relevant to a more informed public debate, are written from the standpoint of those who passionately, even desperately, want to retain current racial preference policies in American universities and to minimize or refute the claims of the policies’ many critics.

This attempt at refutation is particularly aimed at people like Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, who argue that current racial preference policies stigmatize their intended beneficiaries as intellectually inferior and create a “bad fit” that often places black and Latino students in academic settings too advanced for their individual talents and needs. Like its predecessors, however, River III raises issues and underscores problems about current preference policies that readers less committed to racial preferences will find strongly supportive of their own doubts about such policies and sound reason for their immediate termination or gradual phase-out.

But Taming the River isn’t only about racial preference policies, and when it is not trying to defend “affirmative action” (as the policies are euphemistically called), the book often provides valuable information concerning academic and social developments on some of America’s more competitive college campuses. Herein lies the book’s genuine value. Among River III’s more intriguing findings:

  • Despite getting substantially lower grades in college, blacks have higher, not lower reported self-esteem than whites, while Asians have the lowest reported self-esteem, which is probably due to holding very demanding standards of achievement that are not always met.

  • Blacks of West Indian and other foreign parentage are vastly overrepresented on competitive college campuses, comprising 40 percent of all black students at Ivy League schools but only 13 percent of the black student population in America.

  • While male and female students are about equally represented on competitive college campuses among whites and Asians, black women outnumber black men by 2 to 1, often making it difficult for black women to find romantic partners or dates.

  • Blacks coming from families that have received welfare payments represent a much larger proportion of blacks on campus (17 percent) than their white (4 percent) or Asian (9 percent) counterparts, although most blacks come from a broad middle-class sweep of America, with six in ten having fathers with at least a four-year college degree.

While it contains interesting information about students at America’s more selective colleges, River III clearly has two over-arching purposes that are all the more revealing because they are rarely acknowledged as such. River III wants to convince the reader that (1) race-based preference programs, although they display at least some of the serious harms critics have always ascribed to them, are on balance greatly beneficial to all parties and should be retained in an improved form; and (2) the main reason black and Latino youth have such trouble succeeding academically is because American society segregates them in racially isolated ghettos from which whites have fled.

But in trying to promote their central policy prescription and major apologetic theme, the River III authors are forced to engage in mental gymnastics that defy common experience and common sense. Their main problem seems to derive from a mindset that filters social reality through a distorting lens of outdated left-liberal ideology and reigning tenets of academic political correctness, and from a set of assumptions about race and ethnicity in America oblivious or indifferent to the many serious challenges posed to their veracity by scholars who do not abide political correctness or left-liberal assumptions more generally. Simply stated, the River Pilots display an extreme insularity and parochialism that keeps them ignorant of some of the best writing on race and ethnicity emanating from critics with perspectives different from their own.

In this review I address two issues taken up in River III that call out for critical scrutiny. The reader interested in a more extensive critique of a greater range of issues can consult the longer article on this topic, posted on, from which this piece is extracted.

The Stigma Harm of Racial Preferences

I begin with the issue of stigma. For more than three decades affirmative action critics have contended that by placing black students in institutions where white and Asian students have the edge in terms of cognitive development and past performance the image of blacks as intellectually inferior—which has long-standing cultural resonance in America—is powerfully reinforced. The critics speak of “stigma-creation” or “stigma-reinforcement,” a development they say produces a host of problems on college campuses including

  • the creation of feelings of intellectual inferiority and superiority apportioned by group membership,

  • a diminished sense of collegial camaraderie and closeness,

  • diminished academic performance and less intellectual engagement by the stigmatized groups,

  • resentment and condescension by the groups not preferentially treated, and

  • tainted credentials for those receiving preferential treatment.

Oddly, in view of their strong support for preferential policies, the River III authors acknowledge that their research confirms many of these claims. They say, for instance, that

the extensive use of race-sensitive criteria under affirmative action, when it produces a large test score gap between minority and other students on campus, appears to lower minority achievement in two ways. Directly, a large test score gap creates a stigmatizing social context within which black and Latino students find it more difficult to perform, and indirectly a large test score gap heightens the subjective performance burden experienced by minority students because of stereotype threat. We thus confirm both the social stigma hypothesis and the performance burden version of the stereotype threat hypothesis. (199–200)

The River Pilots deserve credit for acknowledging that “race-sensitive admissions” (their euphemism for “affirmative action”) has an undeniably dark side. Two strategies are pursued to deal with this acknowledged fact that racial preference policies have many of the serious harms that critics have long attributed to them. One addresses the issue in cost-benefit terms and, while acknowledging considerable stigma and stereotype-threat costs, claims that the many benefits of greater minority representation on elite campuses, including gains in demographic diversity and cultural enrichment, outweigh the costs.

The other strategy proposes ways to eliminate or reduce the stigma harm. This is to be accomplished, the River III authors say, by admissions officers, college administrators, and college faculty convincing specially admitted students that they have not been admitted under lowered standards but rather because of important accomplishments or abilities not necessarily reflected in high school grades or standardized test scores. “Institutional efforts to maintain racial and ethnic diversity among students,” the River III authors write,

should never be presented as involving a lowering of the bar, a bending of rules, a making of exceptions, or a loosening of standards to accommodate students who are somehow lacking, deficient, or challenged on some important dimension….With respect to admissions, institutions should present themselves as looking for manifestations of excellence and achievement in a variety of domains, of which test-taking ability is just one, and a narrow one at that. Framed in this way, each student is presumed to be outstanding and accomplished in some important way. (228)

It is hard to take either strategy seriously. Against the first strategy, we need to remember that not all diversities are good diversities and that affirmative action is not a formula for healthy campus race relations. The River Pilots’ own surveys show that white and Asian students express a great deal of “social distance” from the black and Latino “beneficiaries of affirmative action.”

The second strategy is even harder to take seriously. What could possibly be meant by displaying “excellence and achievement in a variety of domains of which test-taking ability is just one”? Regardless of how administrators label such programs, “bending the rules” and “loosening standards” are exactly what virtually everyone—including the college administrators who routinely lie about it—actually believes racial preferences do. Indeed, this is why euphemisms and prettifying obfuscations abound: “race sensitive admissions,” “affirmative action,” “diversity.” The River Pilots apparently want college administrators to give student affirmative action beneficiaries a pep talk about the value of their non-academic accomplishments—though what these accomplishments are isn’t stated. Perhaps it is merely the value of being an underrepresented minority, which contributes to campus “diversity.”

But people accepted to prestigious colleges want to think their admittance is due to genuine achievement—if not in academics then at least in a valued non-academic accomplishment such as music or sports. Being told that one is valued because one belongs to some “underrepresented minority group” would be taken by most as an insult to the group and to the group member being given preferential acceptance. This would also seem to be a prescription for enhancing the disidentification—or lukewarm identification—with the realm of learning that the authors of River III claim is partially responsible for underperformance among many black and Latino youth.

The River III authors are simply wrong in believing that perceptions about racial minorities who receive admissions preferences can easily be manipulated by academic administrators or faculty. Their own study shows that it is their classmates who set the tone and determine the nature of the racial atmosphere on campus for most students. It is hard to see how any amount of creative re-labeling, consciousness-raising sessions, and diversity appreciation days will change student perceptions on campus if preferential admissions continue.

Poverty and Segregation Versus Culture

One of the more illuminating sections of River III examines the harmful effects on learning of growing up in a low-income, all-black or all-Latino neighborhood with high rates of crime, disorder, and delinquency. This harm has a sociological and psychological component as well as a powerful biological and endocrinological aspect, which can lead to effects on the brain that permanently damage those exposed long-term to violent and chaotic neighborhoods. In addition to the cognitive impairment that living in such neighborhoods entails, students from such backgrounds, the authors show, have a much greater-than-average likelihood of having to deal with pressing “family issues” that detract from their college studies.

The River Pilots make a thoroughly convincing case for the multiple disadvantages faced by such students, even when they receive full scholarships and live on safe college campuses. But the River Pilots are clearly wrong in defining the black and Latino ghetto problem as simply one of “segregation,” or “segregation and poverty.” The problem with their analysis, which derives largely from the ideas of Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in their influential American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993), is that as a matter of historical record racial segregation and the isolation from mainstream American culture that it produces have not always been a bad thing in the lives of the segregated and isolated people—at least if one is looking at positive outcomes like group cohesiveness, family stability, avoidance of violent behavior, effective socialization of children, cognitive development, and performance in school.

The classic example here is the Chinese and Japanese on the West Coast in the early twentieth century. Although subject to racist white attitudes and discriminatory laws, denied the right to pursue certain professions and to testify in court, excluded for a time from California public schools, and the targets of discriminatory immigration laws, residents of the Chinatowns and Japanese neighborhoods before World War II nevertheless managed to maintain high levels of group cohesiveness and very low levels of crime and family disruption. And their children did outstandingly well in school. Given their linguistic and cultural barriers, their social isolation must have been at least as great as any black in the inner-city ghetto or any Latino in the barrio, yet the trajectory of their group advancement was very different. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century the Chinese and Japanese in California would be among the best educated, most law-abiding, least drug-addicted, and most economically successful ethno-racial groups in America.2

Even the more recent Vietnamese boatpeople, certainly no strangers to violence, have managed to form cohesive ethnic communities with low rates of crime, delinquency, drug addiction, and divorce. Like the Chinese and Japanese, their children have frequently done extraordinarily well in school. They have achieved these results, moreover, often working at the lowest paying unskilled jobs and living in impoverished sections of inner-cities. One early 1980s study by University of Michigan researchers found that despite the fact that the children of Indochinese refugees had only been in America for a few short years and spoke almost no English at home, the average child was just slightly behind national norms in terms of reading and English language skills, but substantially above national norms in spelling (71 percent above the national median) and math (85 percent above the national median).3 The researchers attributed the boatpeople’s success in school to a family, ethnic, and neighborhood culture that places supreme importance on education, achievement, cohesive families, and hard work.

A near identical pattern of group-cohesiveness and academic achievement was shown in a study of the children of unskilled Punjabi Sikh immigrants living in an agricultural region of California. The Sikh children did outstandingly well in the predominantly white schools they attended, the author of the study shows, largely because of close parental monitoring of school progress and focus placed on educational achievement by almost all the adults in the tight-knit Punjabi community. An important part of the successful school strategy involved avoiding too intimate social integration with whites and maintaining social and cultural distance from more mainstream Americans, who were generally seen as lazy and poor role models for the young.4 “Segregation” and “racial isolation” are clearly not necessarily an impediment to academic achievement. In some cases they may enhance it.

Again and again the River Pilots talk about “minority students”—or simply “minorities”—when what they really mean is “African Americans and certain Latino groups.” The choice of locutions is revealing. The authors clearly want to gain sympathy for American blacks and Latinos by contrasting them with the more privileged “white majority,” while avoiding comparing them to “model minority” Asians or other high-achieving groups like the immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Such group comparisons would also be subversive to River III’s implicit theme that racial minority status and white segregating behavior rather than any negative features of American black or Latino cultures are the main reasons for deficient academic performance of the lower-achieving ethno-racial groups. The awkwardness of this terminology becomes apparent when one considers that on many of the college campuses the River Pilots survey Asians greatly outnumber blacks and Latinos and are by far the demographically dominant minority group. There is a clear reluctance to acknowledge that Asians, who have adapted so well to the educational opportunities offered in America, are a racial minority group. Needless to say, this all has little to do with honest scholarship, honest social science, or any sincere effort to find out what is wrong and earnestly try to fix it. In perhaps no other area of American life are strictures of political correctness and ideology-based impediments to honest discussion more formidable than on the issue of academic achievement and race. And such strictures and impediments color almost everything the River Pilots write.


In 1998 the River Pilots began their journey to discover more about the flow of black students from high school to college and beyond. Their objective was to describe “the shape of the river,” but their real goal was defending the admissions policies the two senior River Pilots championed during their respective tenures at Harvard and Princeton. Much of their own research, however, reveals how questionable these policies are and the harm they have done in creating “social distance” between favored and disfavored groups.

The lessons to be learned are clear and simple: racial and ethnic preferences have no place in America, and regardless of how benign the motives of their supporters, such policies have proven to be seductive impediments to the quest of those targeted for the preferences to achieve at high levels and obtain the honor and respect of their non-favored peers. They are a bane to healthy and harmonious ethnic relations on college campuses and both wisdom and justice—backed by a growing body of social science research—cry out for their repeal.

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