The Longhorn Mismatch: Too Much Racial Preference, Too Little Success

Last week the Supreme Court asked the University of Texas to respond to a cert petition raising an issue that in any non-Obamacare year would be the most explosive part of the Court’s docket: racial preferences in higher education.  (UT had for some inexplicable reason failed even to file a waiver, which is customary in cases where the respondent feels no need to file an actual brief.)

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white Texan denied admission to UT-Austin even though her academic credentials exceeded those of admitted minority students.  The district court granted summary judgment to the university and the Fifth Circuit panel affirmed because a divided Supreme Court in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger (the University of Michigan case) found narrowly tailored racial preferences to be constitutionally justified for the sake of diversity.  Judge Emilio Garza wrote an electrifying concurrence – starting at page 58 here – agreeing that the ruling was correct under Grutter but that Grutter itself, and the regime of “soft” racial preferences (i.e., not quotas) it created, is incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause. 

The Fifth Circuit then denied en banc rehearing by a vote of 7-9, over a sharp dissent by Chief Judge Edith Jones.  (Full disclosure: The judge I clerked for lo those years ago, E. Grady Jolly, joined Chief Judge Jones’s dissent.)

Fisher’s cert petition objects to the wide discretion the Fifth Circuit would grant UT in administrating its racially preferential admissions paradigm, arguing that affording deference to the university extends Grutter and cannot be consistent with the “strict scrutiny” Grutter requires. Indeed, rather than working to phase out public university race preferences consistent with the expectations the Court articulated in Grutter – Justice O’Connor famously wrote that the diversity rationale would only suffice for about 25 years – the Fifth Circuit provides a veritable roadmap for discriminatory state action.

Now, it would be ideal if all nine justices were courageous enough to uphold constitutional protections for all citizens by refusing to legitimize racially discriminatory state action, regardless of the good-faith motives or other political atmospherics surrounding that action. Progressive legal theory being what it is, however, such a result, where people are judged on the content of their character/qualifications rather than the color of their skin, is unfortunately still a dream. There is, however, an argument that might sway even those members of the Court who support affirmative action as a policy matter: race preferences hurt those they are intended to help.

As highlighted in Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor’s amicus brief, a growing body of research suggests that when the capabilities of a student’s peers exceed their own, the student performs worse than when surrounded by peers with objectively similar capacities. Sander (a UCLA economist and law professor) and Taylor (a lawyer and journalist who has long covered civil rights issues) utilize this “mismatch theory” to discredit the assumption underlying race preference programs – that they benefit minorities – and demonstrate that the opposite is true. They further point out that racial preferences have failed to have their intended effects; namely, preventing racial balancing, fostering diversity, and making universities more attractive to minorities.

Three U.S. Civil Rights Commissioners also filed an amicus brief presenting evidence that racial preferences produce the opposite of their intended effect; they discourage rather than facilitate the entry of minorities into prestigious careers by incentivizing elite public universities to admit students they would not admit if admissions were race-blind. They argue that racial preferences place students in environments that do not optimize to their learning. Citing robust statistics, they conclude that this effect actually discourages minorities from entering science and engineering careers and becoming college professors, and decreases the number of minority students accepted to law schools who actually earn JDs and pass the bar exam.

The well-intentioned advocates of race-conscious public university admissions got it wrong under the Constitution. These briefs further illustrate the detriment everyone in society suffers when state action based on race rather than merit dictates the paths of young Americans.

Under the Court’s request for a response, the university has until the end of the month to file, unless it asks for and is granted an extension.  If the university’s response arrives by January, the case – if the Supreme Court takes it – should be on schedule for argument and decision this term.  For more on Fisher v. University of Texas, see the case’s SCOTUSblog page.

Thanks to Cato legal associate (and UT alumna) Anna Mackin for help with this blogpost.