Affirmative Action

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION….In the LA Times today, UCLA law professor Richard Sander summarizes his now-famous research suggesting that aggressive affirmative action programs actually hurt black law students:

The other traditional justification for racial preferences by law schools was that they would increase the number of black lawyers. But over the years the pool of black applicants has become much larger and much more qualified. More than 85% of blacks admitted to law schools today would still get into some law school if preferences disappeared ? albeit generally a lower-prestige school.

The modest pool-expanding effects of law school preferences may well be more than canceled out now by the greater attrition caused by the mismatch effect. My research suggests that in a race-blind system, the proportion of black law students graduating and passing the bar on their first attempt would rise from 45% to at least 65%, and the number of new, certified black lawyers each year would rise about 7%.

In other words, Sander’s contention is that in the absence of affirmative action, fewer blacks would be admitted to law school, but overall more blacks would graduate and more blacks would pass the bar exam. (For more details on his research, you can read this series of posts that Sander guest-posted on the Volokh Conspiracy last month. For an alternate view, the Times has a rebuttal to Sander’s article from Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu here.)

Liu’s rebuttal makes the point that there’s more to poor black performance in law school than just academic mismatch: the university experience is different for blacks, anxiety is higher, and racial discrimination still exists ? points that Sander acknowledges. Still, his basic results can’t be dismissed easily, and I suspect Sander is right to suggest that the answer is not to eliminate affirmative action, but only to curb programs that are too zealous in granting preferences, especially at the top schools. Specifically, he estimates that cutting preferences by half would eliminate three-quarters of the attrition problems he identifies, a proposal that he calls the “4% solution.”

Would it work? Nobody knows for sure. Stay tuned for more.