How 'The Economist' Got it Wrong — America Still Needs Affirmative Action

With the Supreme Court considering taking up affirmative action, The Economist’s cover story last week erroneously argues that it's time for an end to the policy.

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With the Supreme Court considering Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, affirmative action has entered into the public eye again. Notably, TheEconomist’s cover story last week argues that its time for an end to affirmative action because:

Before the 1960s, when the foundations of affirmative action were first laid down, most blacks were poor, few served in public office and almost none were to be found flourishing at the nation’s top universities, corporations, law firms and banks. None of that is true today.

But is it really time to get rid of affirmative action? There are two arguments for affirmative action: first that diversity in education is good for students (there is solid research backing up this assertion, which The Economist recognizes) and second that the obstacles an African-American student has to overcome just to apply to college merits a leg up.

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Since The Economistconcedes the first point (arguing that while diversity is good, we can achieve it without affirmative action), the second argument is the one they primarily attack. And yet it couldn’t come at a worse time. The wealth gap between whites and blacks has grown, in fact, it has tripled. The study by Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meshede and Sam Orso find that a college education is a huge driver of that gap. A study by Martha J. Bailey finds that the college entry gap between the rich and poor has widened drastically over the past 40 years, driven largely by inequality.

The truth is, African-Americans aren’t flourishing in public office. There are only two African-American senators (and there has only ever been one black senator in the south, and he was appointed, not elected). There is currently only one black governor and there have been few in the last 100 years. Much of President Obama’s cabinet isconspicuously white and male. The truth is that blacks are drastically underrepresented in the political sphere. There have only been 13 black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. Ever. Another study finds that a mere 14 percent of college presidents are minority.

African Americans still deal with the legacy of racism and oppression. Many blacks alive today can remember redlining, and lack of a home is still a major driver of black poverty. The average inheritance of a black baby boomer is $8,000 while the average inheritance of a white baby boomer is $65,000. Elementary and high schools are still highly segregated and schools with high minority populations are underfunded. In these circumstances, affirmative action is not an unfair boost, it is rather an equalizer. Students who grow up in poverty, attend an underfunded and understaffed school, who don’t get preschool or summer school and still manage to score close to pampered child in public school certainly deserve aid.

The Economist believes that with the abolition of affirmative action, we’ll have more meritocracy. But that’s unlikely. Martha Bailey (cited above) finds that the main reason for the college entry gap between rich and poor is not due to cognitive ability, but rather poverty, “Even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater today than it was two decades ago.”

But does affirmative action help? The Economist cites the research of Richard Sander extensively. Sander published a study in 2004 that found that black students who were accepted into school because of affirmative action failed to obtain a degree and therefore there should be less affirmative action. Odd that The Economist doesn’t even consider a critique of that study, published later that year by  David L. Chambers, Timothy T. Clydesdale, William C. Kidder, and Richard O. Lempert. Chambers et al found that:

Out analyses of both the NSLSP [National Survey of Law School Performance] and BPS [Bar Passage Study] thus reveal that Sander is wrong when he concludes that the current lower performance by African Americans in law school is ‘a simple and direct consequence of the disparity in entering credentials between blacks and whites.’ It is not.

They find that without affirmative action, “both the enrollment of African American law students (particularly at the fifty or eighty most selective schools) and the production of African American lawyers would significantly decline.” The same thing is likely to happen in other colleges. Without affirmative action, the already dismal numbers for African-Americans entering and graduating college may decline even further. Someday we’ll be at a point where we can end affirmative action. The Economist(and much of the Supreme Court) is jumping the gun.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos. Follow him on [email protected]