Why Racial Preferences Are Wrong

Peter Wood

With the fall semester upon us, it seems a good time to return to look again at some fundamentals.  The year ahead promises some key court decisions on affirmative action and racial preferences in higher education.  Rather than address the details of those cases, I’d like to offer a conspectus of the reasons I oppose such preferences.  In this case, I speak not just for myself but as president of the National Association of Scholars, which has its own long history of opposing racial classification in colleges and universities.

Knowledge knows no racial distinction.

This seems self-evident. But if you are of a skeptical turn of mind about it, consider how easily knowledge has flowed across the boundaries of nation, language, and race over the pre-history and the recorded history of humanity.  As an anthropologist, I think first of the relative ease with which Neanderthals in Europe adopted the new refined stone tool technologies introduced by Homo sapiens.  That was a bigger genetic barrier than any that exists today. 

Knowledge Flows

In the millennia since, world history is replete with example of people stealing perfectly good ideas across racial divides.  Gunpowder worked as well for Europeans as did for Chinese, and calculus worked as well for Chinese as it did for Europeans.  The Italian mathematician Fibonacci brought the concept of “zero” back from his travels in North Africa around 1200, where he learned it from the Moors. 

To say that knowledge knows no racial distinction is not the same as saying knowledge knows no cultural distinction.  Some cultures are extraordinarily resistant to new ideas.  In his Histories, written in the middle of the fifth century BC, Herodotus took note of how bitterly the Scythians resisted cultural importations—to the point of killing other Scythians who showed too much attraction to foreign ideas.  Herodotus also ponder the Egyptian determination to stick with their own traditions even in the face of improvements invented elsewhere.  In his view, the Greeks held a great advantage in their willingness to consider, test, and judiciously adopt foreign concepts. 

History seems to have rendered its verdict for the Greeks.  The Scythian legacy is limited to archaeological sites and stories of drinking cups made from the skulls of their enemies.  The Greek legacy is pretty much Western civilization.  Let’s take that as a lesson in keeping an open mind about what we can learn from people unlike ourselves.

Cultural impediments can be great obstacle to education.  But race?  No.  There is no evidence that race stands in the way of knowledge or learning. 

Not Getting It

This irrelevance of race to learning is a fairly simple point, but remarkably, our institutions that are most fundamentally committed to the transmission of knowledge, seem determined to ignore it.  Colleges and universities—most of them anyway—prefer the pretense that knowledge differs in profound ways from race to race.  On occasion, college officials come right out and say this.  They speak, for example, of “Afrocentric knowledge” or race-specific “ways of knowing.”  But these are relatively rare eruptions.  More commonly, higher education merely act as if people of different races think and learn differently.  They do that by holding students of different races to different admissions standards.  They also do it—but more opaquely—by treating enrolled students differently depending on racial identity. 

Maybe these race-conscious discriminations can be understood as clumsy way to address cultural divisions.  Colleges and universities might be assuming that American blacks in general inhabit a culture that is hostile to higher learning—that blacks are to the university what Scythians were to foreign manners.  Such a concept is surely offensive and, perhaps for that reason, never actually said in so many words, but it seems to hover at the edges of contemporary apologetics for racial preferences in higher education.  Let’s quickly dispose of it:  American blacks have long thirsted for higher learning and often excelled at it.  And the black community in general takes pride in intellectual accomplishment. 

There are real cultural divisions among racial groups in American society, but those divisions provide no basis for discriminating for or against members of racial groups. 

Let’s return to the broader picture.  The determination to solve unanswered scientific questions has nothing to do with “group identity.” Commitment needed to acquire mastery of foreign languages, to read deeply and widely in literature, and to enter into lifelong dialogue with great philosophers, great works of art, and great ideas wherever they may originate is a commitment to humanity as a whole, not a subsection marked off by ancestry or social convention.

We should be mindful of the history of racial oppression in the United States and the realities that, for many generations, blacks, Native Americans, and members of other minority groups faced categorical discrimination in our society, and that denial of equal access to higher education was a key form of that discrimination. The formal barriers to college admission, as well as to professorial careers, have long since been dismantled. Today no college in the United States discriminates against black students or students in several other minority classifications in these matters. 

But racial discrimination—often of a very nasty sort—continues. 

I’d like to see it brought to an end and replaced with race-blind and color-blind admissions, hiring, and promotion policies in colleges and universities. Higher education ought to stand on the pursuit of truth. And that pursuit is a matter of individual ability, ambition, and commitment.  These are positions that a large majority of Americans of all races say they support.

The Achievement Gap

Yet questions of how best to ensure minority “access” to college very much persist and are at the center of an important contemporary debate. That debate focuses on the statistical “under-representation” of blacks and other minorities in the cohorts of students who have the highest grades, the best test scores, and the best academic records that bear on the decisions to admit students to colleges. The statistical discrepancies are often summarized in the term “the achievement gap.” And the key question at the heart of the central dispute in contemporary higher education is whether colleges and universities should compensate for the achievement gap by admitting blacks and other minority students at a lower academic standard than they admit other students.

A key question inevitably draws forth conflicting answers. Those who argue in favor of “racial preferences” in higher education clearly mean well. They would like to achieve what they see as a more just society by taking steps that, in their eyes, compensate for the legacy of past racial discrimination—a legacy they believe is the real cause of the achievement gap. 

I join this concern about achieving a more just society in America, but racial preferences in higher education are not a good step in that direction. To the contrary, those preferences perpetuate the problem. Racial preferences in college admissions (and in college hiring) reinforce the idea that racial identity can and should be a substitute for recognizing the distinctive qualities of an individual. Instead of teaching us to see one another as persons, each endowed with an individual mind, talents, ambitions, and character, racial preferences teach us to regard one another first and foremost as members of racial groups.


The advocates of racial preferences are aware of the dangers of stereotyping that come with the policy they support. As a result, racial preference advocates often turn to rhetoric that is meant to obscure the dangers. Today, instead of speaking directly about racial preferences or “affirmative action” (itself a euphemism), they often speak about diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, overcoming adversity, critical mass, or a host of other terms that emphasize the supposedly good things that can come from colleges and universities putting their thumbs on the scale to assist minority applicants in gaining admission. 

Each of these substitute terms invites its own long discussion and analysis, but in the end amounts to the same thing: a new name for racial preferences. But changing the name of the practice doesn’t change the practice itself. And while a euphemism may momentarily distract people from the reality, the reality remains that racial preferences are profoundly unfair; they are damaging to the individuals they are supposed to help; they are damaging to the categories of people they are supposed to help; they are damaging to other categories of people; they are damaging to society as a whole; and they undermine the core principles of higher education. All in all, racial preference add up to a terribly misguided and destructive social policy, albeit one that presents itself as morally righteous. 

Those who need to decide these policies face a very hard choice. It amounts to a version of Plato’s famous analogy of the cave: whether to accept a long-standing and agreeable illusion, or whether to step out of the cave and see things as they actually are. The illusion in this case is that racial preferences in higher education are gradually leading America to a better place by undoing the vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. The reality is that racial preferences are sewing new deep divisions, mutual hostility and disdain, and a culture of permanent grievance. 

The Damages

The damages wrought by racial preferences that I mentioned above deserve a little expansion.

Racial preference are profoundly unfair. We are a society founded on the truth that all men are created equal. Our history as a nation is in a large part a history of striving to better live up to this truth. Racial preferences move in the opposite direction by treating some individuals as worthy of preferred treatment merely because of racial attribution. The beneficiaries of racial preferences in fact are overwhelmingly from upper middle class and prosperous families that have faced little or no discrimination in their own lives. And many colleges and universities in the pursuit of “numbers” go outside the United States to the Caribbean and to West Africa to recruit students of color, thus vitiating their own rationale for the policies as rectifying an injustice to descendants of American slaves.  

They are damaging to the individuals they are supposed to help. The invidious effects of “mismatching” individuals to colleges have been well-documented by UCLA law professor and economist Richard Sander and others. Admitted to colleges in which they are destined to be among the least qualified of their classmates, students under-perform and fail at rates significantly higher than their counterparts admitted to programs in which their academic profile would be average or above. Racial preferences set students up for failure. The providers of the preferences may feel they are striking a blow for social justice, but more often they are derailing students’ careers and leaving them demoralized, debt-ridden, and worse off than they would have been with no preferences at all.

They are damaging to the categories of people they are supposed to help. Racial preferences have two awkward consequences. They demotivate teenage students in minority groups, who quickly realize that they will be able to gain admission to and financial support from colleges without trying very hard in high school. Then the mismatch effect plays out on campus where students admitted without preferences are confronted with daily evidence where a large proportion of the least qualified and least able of their classmates are black or members of other preferred minority groups. This invites a judgment that majority students often struggle against, but which nonetheless registers with minority students as “microaggression” or “stereotyping.” The trouble is that the stereotype is founded on the evidence created by the racial preferences themselves. Instead of admitting minority students whose academic profile is indistinguishable from other students, colleges select minority students who end up standing out among their peers as having lower levels of ability. Instead of overcoming a stereotype, the policy lays the basis for one. 

 They are damaging to other categories of people. Racial preference policies are meant to be policies that discriminate in favor of members of one or another group. But it is a zero-sum game. To discriminate in favor of members of one group is to discriminate against the members of other groups. The heavily disfavored group whose members now face massive discrimination in American higher education is Asian. But the “affirmative action” cases that that have gone to trial, such as Grutter, Gratz, and Fisher, have presented strong evidence of discrimination against whites as well.

They are damaging to society as a whole. We are a society that should be moving in a determined, thoughtful, and peaceful way to full integration. Members of racial, ethnic, language, and religious minorities should have full equality not just before the law but in the larger sense of cultural acceptance. Americans have enormous good will to others. Absent something that provokes a sense of real injustice or occasions outrage, we seek to be “one people.” Racial preferences are one of the great tears in that fabric of unity. They encourage group identity at the expense of broader unity; they foster stereotypes, deepen suspicion, and contribute more than a little to underlying racial animosity.

They undermine the core principles of higher education. Higher education is profoundly about shaping the individual, as a seeker of old knowledge, a discoverer of new knowledge, a keeper of civilization, and a citizen in the fullest sense. By putting group identity as the first and foremost quality in determining an individual’s access to college, these individual qualities are compromised. 

The Life of the Mind

 There is nothing new in recognizing this. More than a century ago, in The Souls of Black Folk, Harvard trained scholar W.E. B. Du Bois eloquently indicted the America of his day for its failure to recognize that blacks could fully participate, as equals, in the life of the mind:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?

I believe we need more racial equality, not less. It was two members of my organization, Glynn Custred, a professor of anthropology, and Tom Wood, then executive director of the California Association of Scholars, who co-authored the California Civil Rights Initiative— Proposition 209—that outlawed racial preferences in that state. Proposition 209 passed in 1996 with a substantial margin in the popular vote and has withstood an unending series of legal challenges. But it is also sadly the case that most of California’s public colleges and universities have sought ways to evade it. The newest testimony of how that happens comes from UCLA professor of political science Timothy Groseclose who in his book, Cheating: An Insider’s Report on the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA, provides a map of exactly how a major university subverts its own integrity in the pursuit of racial preferences. 

California’s Civil Rights Initiative has been replicated in other states, including Washington and most recently Michigan. NAS has been a significant player in each of these fights. One thing we learned is that passing laws does not, by itself, end racial preferences. So committed are college and university administrations to their particular vision of “racial justice,” many of them knowingly and sometimes with explicit defiance break the law in states that have Constitutional prohibitions of racial preferences. And similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that bear on the use of racial preferences pose major restrictions on how and when colleges and universities may employ them—but our institutions of higher learning tend to play fast and loose with these restrictions. (That is what lies at the heart of the current case Fisher v. University of Texas.)

The racial preference regime in the United States will not last forever. It runs counter to our core values as a nation, and it is deeply unpopular with the general public. It holds on as a special interest among those who see personal or professional benefits in maintaining it as a policy, and because it has a certain faction of true believers who are as zealous in its support as they are mistaken in its effects.

But that doesn’t mean it will die easily or fade out after twenty-five years, as Sandra Day O’Connor fatuously declared in her opinion in Grutter.  An industry has grown up around the use of racial preferences; careers of “diversity” specialists depend on perpetuating them; and there is no shortage of true believers who hold that the cure for racial preferences that deliver poor results is more racial preferences.  To beat these special interests will require concerted effort.

The problem cannot be solved in a stroke. Institutions will resist. If they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, they will defy the law and feel even more righteous.  The larger issues of racial division will not vanish.  

On the other side the ledger, however, is American character.  We are not Scythians.  We don’t stay stuck on a bad tradition.  Sooner or later we see that it is wrong and fix it.  

Image: Pexels

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