Selling Merit Down the River

Russell K. Nieli

The National Association of Scholars is pleased to present a major review essay by Russell K. Nieli, lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.  

The point of departure for this essay is a new book supporting affirmative action, Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities, by Camille Charles, Mary Fischer, Margarita Mooney, and Douglas Massey (Princeton University Press, 2009). Dr. Nieli takes the occasion to look back over a crucial decade of university apologetics for racial preferences. He includes two previous "River" books on affirmative action, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions by William Bowen and Derek Bok; and The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America's Selective Colleges and Universities, by Douglas Massey, Camille Charles, Garvey Lundy, and Mary Fischer.

This is necessarily a long essay (59 pages) but the reader will find that it moves quickly and reads compellingly. The body of the essay is divided into seven propositions that Dr. Nieli believes that the “River Pilots” fail to grasp. These are:

I.                 The Stigma Harm of Racial Preferences (page 5)

II.                Upward Ratcheting Reinforces Negative Stereotypes and Replaces Good Diversity with Bad (page 11)

III.               Ignoring the Obvious—The Disincentive Effects of the Racial Preference System (page 15)

IV.             The Pernicious Palliative: Fostering Middle-Class Black Complacency in the Face of Pitifully Poor High School Performance (page 25)

V.               The Ghetto Black Problem Is Less a Poverty-and-Segregation

VI.              Problem than a Problem of Dysfunctional Black Families, Neighborhoods and Culture

VII.            Recruited Athletes, Recruited Latinos, Recruited Blacks—The Corruption of Educational Standards (page 36)

VIII.          Playing with Fire: Tribal Loyalties, Tribal Enmities, and Inter-group Norms of Reciprocity and Fairness (page 41)

In his conclusion, Dr. Nieli writes that “the intense opposition to racial preferences

by disfavored groups” arises from “the the norm of interethnic fairness and reciprocity.” This is not a new conclusion but it is made in this case after a scrupulous sifting of the arguments and evidence provided by those who see mostly racial hostility in the widespread public rejection of racial preferences.

“Selling Merit Down the River” is the latest of numerous contributions that NAS has made to the debate on racial preferences. Last summer we published a PDF version of Larry Purdy’s bookGetting Under the Skin of “Diversity” and last fall, we published a special issue of Academic Questions on racial preferences.

Click on here to download the PDF.

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