Glenn Loury on affirmative action

December 28, 2022 • 10:45 am

I remain on the fence about affirmative action, favoring it to some extent although I can see the cogency of many arguments against it, including those made in this long article by Glenn Loury in City Journal (click on screenshot).

Loury himself seems to profess that he’s not 100% opposed to it—at least as these bits imply: (all bolding below is mine):

The United States has a problem with persisting racial inequality. It is, in part, a legacy of our ignoble past: the institution of chattel slavery and a century of unfreedom and unequal citizenship for African-Americans after emancipation. Americans have a moral imperative to redress the consequences of that past. But affirmative action isn’t the remedy for this problem. It’s a distraction.

That doesn’t mean that affirmative action should never be practiced, that it’s morally wrong, or that it can never be a suitable policy. Those are separate questions. Racial inequality is deep and abiding, showing no sign of going away, and we are a lesser nation for it. Yet while affirmative action helps to obtain an adequate representation of diverse ethnic groups at elite institutions of higher education, it imposes serious costs.

And yet while he doesn’t rule it out it shouldn’t be used, or is sometimes suitable, these are the only two paragraphs in the article—save the one sentence below—that imply that affirmative action is not a total mistake. Here’s one more caveat:

Let’s look more carefully at the policy of affirmative action in higher-education admissions. If you told me in 1970, “We’ve never had any blacks at this university. We’re going to do something about that,” I would not have had a problem. If you said, “We must have some African-Americans in our student body because streets are burning in the ghettos of America,” as William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, stated in a book called The Shape of the River, I wouldn’t have had a problem with that, at least not as a transitional policy. What I have a problem with is enshrining, making permanent, and institutionalizing a practice of judging blacks by academic standards different from those applied to other people.

But does he have a problem with it now—now that it’s no longer a transitional policy but appears to be a permanent social policy? Indeed he does, for his hypothetical above assumes that the time is 1970.

The first part of the sentence in bold above is what I agree with: it is not good for a country that professes equal opportunity to have a glaring absence of blacks and Hispanics in elite colleges or high-class corporations. Yes, I know that affirmative action in general requires lowering the bar for minorities, but there are studies (I haven’t read them) claiming that racial diversity in colleges is good for everyone. But even if racial diversity doesn’t increase viewpoint diversity, it still puts people from different groups together, and so long as there’s no self-segregation of minorities (which is in fact what often happens), I still hold to the view that the best way to overcome prejudice is to have people from different groups rub elbows.

Call me sappy, but I still agree with the South Pacific song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (to hate, that is). But in the end, I agree with Loury on one point: affirmative action is not a way to rectify racial disparities, and not the best way to promote equal opportunity. It has failed to do so. Equal opportunity is what we want, and that must start with a drastic social restructuring beginning when children are born. That’s not going to happen, as we’ve had years to do it, and absent the dosh and the will, I feel that we do need to “have some African-Americans in our student body.”

But this is a moot point, for in a few short months the Supreme Court will ban race-based admissions by a vote of 6-3. We know that universities will try to circumvent it, but I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to devise a policy that provides some racial balance on one hand but obeys the law on the other.

At any rate, despite the nods to affirmative action above, Loury says that “while affirmative action helps to obtain an adequate representation of diverse ethnic groups at elite institutions, it imposes serious costs. The rest of this long piece is devoted to those costs. Here are a few (my summary points; Loury’s quotes are indented):

1). Affirmative action (henceforth “AA”) is inconsistent with the goal of racial equality, and also detracts from the dignity of minorities:

It invites us to become liars—to pretend that false things are true. It invites us to look the other way. It’s not equality; it’s the opposite of equality. Knowing that I’m being judged by standards that are different and less rigorous by virtue of the fact that my ancestors suffered some indignity is itself undignified.

2.) AA does very little to solve the problem of racial inequalities and disparities. 

Racial preferences persist because they represent the path of least resistance. If an administrator of a selective institution saw that blacks were a minuscule percent of his student body, he would want to change that. If he found that admitting African-American students at a lower percentile of performance would ease his public-relations problem, then he would do it. But when thousands of people in that same situation make the same decision and place it beyond criticism, the goal of equality suffers. Failing to address ourselves to the developmental disparities manifest in test scores, as well as failing to change the dynamics of human development at the root of black underrepresentation in elite and selective venues, means failing to solve the inequality problem.

That, to me, is the strongest argument against AA. It pretends to solve a problem that it doesn’t, and thus leaves society satisfied that we’re rectifying inequalities. We’ve traded off the hard work of really ensuring equal opportunity for a cosmetic solution that will not only last forever, but also fails to remedy the inequalities that are the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.

3.) AA pretends that present inequalities are due to present racism rather than a historical legacy. In this sense “structural” inequality is a myth, but one that we all pretend to hold. 

Two competing narratives exist to explain racial inequality: a bias narrative and a development narrative. The bias narrative holds that, even today, white supremacy and institutional racism keep black people from gaining entry into elite and selective venues and that the remedy for this is affirmative action. This was correct half a century ago. But does any serious person today really believe that Brown University, where I teach, is a racist institution? Does any serious person believe that the bias narrative accounts for what, in the absence of racial preferences, would be the relatively low number of African-Americans at Harvard, while Asian-American students there are excelling at some of the most difficult intellectual tasks that humans can be asked to perform? I don’t think so.

The development narrative holds instead that realities of racial inequality are a consequence of underdevelopment. That underdevelopment certainly has a genealogy rooted in bias. Historically, blacks were not afforded equal opportunity in the housing market, were not given a fair chance to accumulate wealth, and didn’t inherit from their ancestors that to which they were due, because their ancestors were enslaved and not compensated properly for their labor. Some of the social and cultural factors that might impair the development of black intellectual performance have their roots in this history. But the problem of inequality for African-Americans today is not mainly the expression of a racist society. And jiggering the test-score standards for people to get into elite institutions is not a remedy for it.

It baffles me that academics, for instance, who are supposed to be good at distinguishing between explanations, are the first to accuse their own fields and institutions of structural racism when they know that it’s not true. We struggle very hard to find qualified minorities to teach and to become graduate students. The real explanation is the “development narrative”, but somehow, despite the frightening statistics that Loury adduces about black families and income, our default explanation is the “bias narrative”, and we have a tacit pact that this is what we’ll accept. Any other explanation is deemed racist.

4.) AA, as practiced by “elite” colleges, put students in a position of being underachievers. It also causes bias by making white students assume that minorities in such schools are unqualified.

One of my early papers, published in the American Economic Review in 1993, was titled “Will Affirmative Action Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?” My coauthor, Stephen Coate from Cornell University, and I maintained that relaxing selection criteria can change an applicant’s incentives to acquire skills and also affect the inferences that an observer might make about that applicant’s capabilities. What concerned us is the possibility that the reputation of black students would be marred, given widespread awareness that they have been admitted under a lower standard. One can say that it’s racist to draw the conclusion that black students on average are not as sharp as others, since they’ve been admitted under a less strenuous bar, but it’s also rational. If we institutionalize the practice of using a different standard of selection, how can we keep people from appreciating the logical implications of that practice? Maybe those who have been around for a while and become socially adept at managing their way through American society aren’t going to state these concerns explicitly. But lots of people are going to think it if, for example, the SAT scores for the black students admitted to Harvard are a standard deviation below those of everybody else.

. . . Another concern with affirmative action relates to the performance of students after they’re admitted to a given school. The U.S. has lots of different colleges and lots of different students. A matching problem ensues when kids and colleges get together and decide who’s going to go where. What if applicants get assigned to colleges where the intellectual demands outpace their capabilities? Some colleges are more demanding than others. The ones that admit from the far-right tail of the distribution of academic performance among applicants are bound to be a tougher slog for anybody.

I think the data on this “mismatch hypothesis” of the second paragraph are mixed, so I would take that with a grain of salt.

In the end, I still think that affirmative action of a gentle sort, which of course requires lowering the “merit” bar, is worth it, not only because there are far more qualified students who apply to elite colleges than can be admitted, and also because of the potential social benefits of affirmative action. But whether or not you favor AA, it doesn’t matter because it will soon be illegal.

I do agree with Loury’s closing: AA is not the best way to tackle the problem of inequality, and it hasn’t succeeded in doing so despite half a century of implementation, as well as the assurances of its early proponents that it would only be a temporary measure.


This issue matters. Our students should be able to stand on solid ground as equally effective participants in the enterprise of higher education without pretense and without lying. Disparities in preparation will reflect themselves after admission. Unless we actually succumb to the temptations of relativism and refuse to make any distinctions or draw any lines, somebody’s paper is going to be written better than somebody else’s paper. Somebody’s going to be able to do a problem set and get the correct answers, and somebody else is not going to be able to do it. Somebody is going to be able to read the material, absorb what it says, and coherently recount with a critical eye what’s been said better than other people are able to do it. Unless you believe that admissions criteria are unrelated to those performance criteria, if you compose a class using different standards, you’re going to compose a class with differences in performance. That’s inevitable.

People are different. I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush. But I’m a statistician by training. There’s an inescapable logic to this. You can do two things with these differences in performance. You can pretend that they don’t exist—that’s what I mean by lying—or make them evident in the way that you deal with the people in front of you. The temptation to do the first is overwhelming. But that’s not equality. Do you think that university administrators don’t know this? They know, and they’re not saying, because there’s a political understanding that what we need to do to deal with the legacy of slavery and racism is to patronize blacks. And that makes me angry.

8 thoughts on “Glenn Loury on affirmative action

  1. Such a pleasure to read Loury – what clarity and precision of thought on a subject that dearly needs it.

    Yes, statements similar to what I wrote ^^^ has been construed as racist. Tiresome, is what I’d say.

  2. Knowing that you are being judged by lower standards is an indignity. — Is that true? At my highly selective liberal arts college, we all knew students who had been admitted as legacies, or because they came from somewhere other than Boston, New York and Philadelphia. We knew, and they knew, that they had been judged by lower standards. This was well known and joked about. It didn’t detract from anyone’s dignity. If race-based affirmative action detracts from anyone’s dignity, this is not because the person has been judged by lower standards but because the admission standards are viewed through spectacles tinted by ideas about race and ability.

    1. You might be correct that many would not let their unfair admittance or appointments bother them in the slightest. The (dis)honorable election of lying republican George Santos, for example. Or the cheating buffoons who were recently rumbled for force-feeding fish lead weights so as to win a tournament. Or hell, that cheating bastard Lance Armstrong. Plenty don’t care how they get where they are, so long as they get there. Loury, however, has admitted that his becoming the first black full professor of economics at Harvard was a mistake, so his opinion on the latter is a personal one. So I suppose some would have no qualms about accepting their admission to a prestigious university or high paying position but those with integrity and little old fashion shame might not feel comfortable with that particular cross to bear, even privately.

    2. You nailed it. And there’s much to gain for an individual who gets into a – to paraphrase Groucho – club that would just barely have one as a member. College is a status symbol and magic ticket; the more exclusive, the more so. As long as you can graduate, which isn’t much of a bar if your heart is in it and your life isn’t crumbling around you.

  3. “… It pretends to solve a problem that it doesn’t…”

    A not unfamiliar pattern. Here is General Secretary Stalin, quoted on a different subject in Pravda in 1930:

    ”Everybody is now talking about the successes achieved by the Soviet government in the sphere of the collective-farm movement. … Apart from the direct practical results, these successes are of tremendous importance for the internal life of the Party itself, for the education of our Party. They imbue the Party with a spirit of cheerfulness and confidence in its strength. They arm the working class with confidence in the triumph of our cause.”
    However, as Comrade Stalin warns later on: “People are often intoxicated by such successes, they become dizzy with success, they lose all sense of proportion…”

  4. The “default explanation (being) the bias narrative” results from the “disparity fallacy” as analyzed by T Sowell and many others, according to which there exists only one permissible explanation for statistical differences in outcome amongst groups, in whatever manner these groups may be defined.

  5. It’s a very good article. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Based on the numbers Loury makes a very good case that Harvard and UNC are in the wrong. Harvard clearly discriminated against Asian applicants, according to the article. Given the composition of today’s Supreme Court, my guess is that Affirmative Action will soon go down to defeat either partially or entirely. If so, Loury’s position that Affirmative Action is not the right way to go about solving the problem of racial disparity will be subject to empirical test. Should be interesting.

  6. I have a pet theory that woke-ism is actually TURNING people more racist. BLM, for eg, is rotten all the way through and the CAUSE of more inner city black deaths, while also using statistical slights of hand, opposing the nuclear family, capitalism, and ISRAEL!
    Presumably many African Americans are shot by Israeli police?

    The “anti-asian hate wave” is entirely fictional and, again statistically nonsense.
    NYC (currently FL)

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