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The Case Against Affirmative Action

If, after 25 years, affirmative action has not succeeded in ending discrimination, perhaps it is time to try something else.

By David Sacks & Peter Thiel

Over the past quarter of a century, Stanford has been discriminating in favor of racial minorities in admissions, hiring, tenure, contracting and financial aid. But only recently has the University been forced to rethink these policies in the face of an emerging public debate over affirmative action.

We are beginning to see why. Originally conceived as a means to redress discrimination, racial preferences have instead promoted it. And rather than fostering harmony and integration, preferences have divided the campus. In no other area of public life is there a greater disparity between the rhetoric of preferences and the reality.

Take, for instance, the claim that racial preferences help the "disadvantaged." In reality, as the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell has observed, preferences primarily benefit minority applicants from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. At the same time, because admissions are a zero-sum game, preferences hurt poor whites and even many Asians (who meet admissions standards in disproportionate numbers). If preferences were truly meant to remedy disadvantage, they would be given on the basis of disadvantage, not on the basis of race.

Another myth is that preferences simply give minority applicants a small "plus." In reality, the average SAT disparity between Stanford's African-American and white admittees reached 171 points in 1992, according to data compiled by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education and cited in Richard herrnstein and Charles Murray's book, The Bell Curve.

The fundamental unfairness and arbitrariness of preferences -- why should the under-qualified son of a black doctor displace the qualified daughter of a Vietnamese boat refugee? -- has led supporters to shift rationales in recent years. Instead of a remedy for disadvantage, many supporters now claim that preferences promote "diversity." This same push for "diversity" also has led Stanford to create racially segregated dormitories, racially segregated freshman orientation programs, racially segregated graduation ceremonies and curricular requirements in race theory and gender studies.

But if "diversity" were really the goal, then preferences would be given on the basis of unusual characteristics, not on the basis of race. The underlying assumption -- that only minorities can add certain ideas or perspectives -- is offensive not merely because it is untrue but also because it implies that all minorities think a certain way.

What's gone wrong? The basic problem is that a racist past cannot be undone through more racism. Race-conscious programs betray Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind community, and the heightened racial sensitivity they cause is a source of acrimony and tension instead of healing.

When University officials boast of "looking for racism everywhere," as multicultural educator Greg Ricks did in a 1990 Stanford Daily interview, then perhaps the most sensible (and certainly the most predictable) response will be for white students to avoid dealing with such quarrelsome people. In this way, the stress on "diversity" has made interracial interaction strained and superficial; multiculturalism has caused political correctness.

None of this is to deny that there are some people in America who are racist and that there are some features of American life that are legacies of a much more racist past. But racism is not everywhere, and there is very little at a place like Stanford. Certainly, no one has accused Stanford's admissions officers of being racist, so perhaps the real problem with affirmative action is that we are pretending to solve a problem that no longer exists. Moreover, there is a growing sense that if affirmative action has not succeeded in ending discrimination after 25 years of determined implementation, then perhaps it is time to try something else.

Although Stanford's admissions office cannot undo the wrongs of history, its mission is still very important -- namely, admitting the best class of students it can find. The sole criterion in finding the members of this class and in defining "merit" should be individual achievement -- not just grades and test scores, of course, but a broad range of accomplishments, in athletics, music, student government, drama, school clubs and other extracurricular efforts. But race and ethnicity (or gender or sexual preference) do not have a place on this list; these are traits, not achievements.

Perhaps the most tragic side effect of affirmative action is that very significant achievements of minority students can become compromised. It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix. When people do start to suspect the worst -- that preferences have skewed the entire class -- they are accused of the very racism that justifies these preferences. It is a strange cure that generates its own disease.

A Stanford without affirmative action will be a Stanford in which the question of who belongs here will no longer need to be answered. It will no longer need to be answered because it will no longer need to be asked, not even sotto voce .

David Sacks, '94, is a law student at the University of Chicago. Peter Thiel, '89, JD '92, runs an investment firm. They are co-authors of The Diversity Myth: "Multi-culturalism" and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford.

Comments (13)

  • Mr. Matt Dude

    This article is right, it is rational. However, I just can't see anyone listening to it, or agreeing with it. In fact, I was taught in my college class that this type of thinking, is "covert racism". It's not about being realistic, or rational, or fair and unbiased. The world wants you to "sound politically correct", and have utopian intentions. I wish people weren't so emotionally biased.

    Posted by Mr. Matt Dude on Jan 31, 2013 3:54 PM

  • Albert Joseph Jaramillo, Ph.D.

    ."affirmative action has not succeeded in ending discrimination" - That was not the intention of affirmative action.- the intention was to take a positive (affirmative) action in creating opportunity for different people to mix together and in the case of Stanford learn together. It's great being young, rich and still naive to the cultural history of the United States. Maybe some research in the underlying rationale for "Affirmative action" during the Richard Nixon years might be helpful. Your article reads like a rant at a country club wine party.

    Posted by Albert Joseph Jaramillo, Ph.D. on Mar 8, 2013 6:24 AM

  • Mr. Anonymous Merci

    Thank you Albert for your refreshing contribution. It is hard for me to understand how a man so revered by many of my peers at Stanford (Mr. Thiel) could be so short sighted and have such a shallow understanding of society and its current social realities. The first important point, as you've addressed, Albert, is that affirmative action does not, in fact, aim to end discrimination. (Or at least this is not its only intention.)

    Secondly, it is surely also worth mentioning that Mr. Thiel's and Mr. Sacks assertion that race is the only factor considered in affirmative action admissions at Stanford is profoundly unfounded. A look at Stanford's undergraduate admissions website's frequently asked questions section reveals that: "we pay close attention to the unique educational contexts and life experiences of students from low-income families and nontraditional backgrounds." Race, as a matter of fact, is not even mentioned in the administration's answer to the question: "Does Stanford practice Affirmative Action?*" **  ...

    Posted by Mr. Anonymous Merci on Mar 22, 2013 6:46 AM

  • Mr. Anonymous Merci

    This is perhaps, however, a moot point, given that Mr. Thiel and Mr. Sacks do not believe that any characteristics, apart from economic income, should be considered in admissions processes***. It is worth noting that is therefore equally moot, however, that the authors should choose to add the qualifying characteristics of gender and ethnicity to the disadvantaged student, in their emotionally laden example of the "daughter of the Vietnamese boat refugee." Yet the authors do choose this example over that of, say, a rich, white son of a banker. Clearly, decisions are being made here to mask alternative motivations for the authors' beliefs.

    If the authors *are* to engage in a meritocratic discussion about who "deserves more" to be at Stanford, perhaps it would be useful to consider how an individual's background, or the social resources they had available to them growing up, might color the notion of how much they have "earned" their place in society or the "achievements" they boast coming to their application to Stanford university.***** ...

    Posted by Mr. Anonymous Merci on Mar 22, 2013 6:51 AM

  • Mr. Anonymous Merci

    I am saddened that such bigotry could be published on a Stanford affiliated site. But then again, perhaps it speaks to the strangely conservative mix of philosophies that curdle beneath the surface of otherwise fairly progressive policies at Stanford as a whole.

    *It is only referenced indirectly through a link to a page discussing Stanford's non-discrimination policy, which is a non-discrimination policy (not an affirmative action policy) and speaks of discriminaon based on "ethnic origin, sex, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity," not just race.

    ** A look at any of the legislation addressing affirmative action will also reveal that racial groups are not the only social groups to which the legislation applies. Not, admittedly, that any of that legislation applies in this circumstance, as no private institution in this country is mandated to have an affirmative action program, but -- as Albert pointed out -- looking at the legislation can often be useful in considering the historical motivation behind affirmative action policies. ...

    Posted by Mr. Anonymous Merci on Mar 22, 2013 6:58 AM

  • Mr. Anonymous Merci

    *** Although they admittedly do not directly state that they believe this "characteristic" should be either. (Strange, no?, as they seem to use it implicate its importance in their arguments against affirmative action policies.)

    ****Which is flawed in the first place.

    *****(At times the authors seem lucidly aware of this point of view [in their implicit discussion of the importance of economic background in an applicant's history] and yet at other points utterly blind [like the point at which they apparently indicate that economic background shouldn't be considered anyways as a "characteristic" for admission.])

    Posted by Mr. Anonymous Merci on Mar 22, 2013 6:57 AM

  • Ms. Kathleen Mary Morey

    A lack of clear definitions dogs the article. Define "racism," "disadvantaged," and "diversity," for starters. I offer my own observations from decades in the workplace: Some barriers yield only when they are kicked down and people formerly shut out can get in to prove themselves. Affirmative action can kick barriers down. We can't legislate changes of heart and mind, but we can legislate for access and opportunity.

    Posted by Ms. Kathleen Mary Morey on May 2, 2013 8:39 PM

  • Mr. Tyler Durant

    I am dissapointed that many of you have such a shortsighted opinion of the detrimental effects of affirmative action on our society. Kudos to the authors of this article as they present an informed and logical argument.

    Posted by Mr. Tyler Durant on May 16, 2014 9:09 AM

  • Mr. Liam Brodigan

    The racial ignorance in this article is depressing. Paragraph seven is the most ignorant paragraph. It reads: What's gone wrong? The basic problem is that a racist past cannot be undone through more racism. Race-conscious programs betray Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind community, and the heightened racial sensitivity they cause is a source of acrimony and tension instead of healing.

    The first sentence it self is appalling. The more "racism" that the author is referring to is racism against racial majorities, white people. You can't be racist against white people. Racism is a system, hence the ism. If you benefit from that system based on your race, you cannot be subject to racism. You can be racially prejudice against white people but not racist. The following sentence is just as ignorant.

    The second sentence of the 7th paragraph talks about how Dr. King wanted color-blind society. He wanted no such thing. Color blindness (when referring to race) is a myth, an ignorant myth. Since the day we are born, race is a constant factor. It is impossible to ignore and must be recognized. Instead of lying and saying we are color-blind we must celebrate our racial differences. The ultimate goal is color-kind society, one where we celebrate racial diversity and understand the history of race in America and the world.  Color-blindness is an ignorant escape to a complex issue.

    At one point in the article the author says that "Racism is not everywhere"; In fact, racism is everywhere. As I said earlier it is a system. The system of racism stretches all walls; there is no boundary it is yet to overcome. This country was built on racism and continues to thrive on racism. This article is simply perpetuating racism.

    Posted by Mr. Liam Brodigan on Nov 12, 2014 6:45 AM

  • Ms. Angel Farrah Fannin

    I see where the authors of this article are coming from, but they probably don't know that affirmative action also benefits women. Not just minority women, but also white women. When looking at the statistics White women actually have benefited the most. There is even an article in Time that mentions it:

    Posted by Ms. Angel Farrah Fannin on Dec 6, 2014 1:17 AM

  • Ms. Marina Johnson

    I believe that in a sense affirmative action is great. However I think that if we were looking more at where someone came from and not just the color of their skin we would get a lot farther and make it more fair that way.

    Posted by Ms. Marina Johnson on Oct 5, 2015 10:47 AM

  • Mr. Richard W. Seibert, Jr.

    I have to wonder how the 69 Asian groups' litigation against Harvard is going to affect Stanford's admissions policies?

    It looks like Stanford is losing control over it's students yet again, since President Hennessey is resigning maybe we could draft Peter Thiel to be our next president?

    Posted by Mr. Richard W. Seibert, Jr. on Nov 2, 2015 5:52 PM

  • Angelo Torres, Sr., MBA

    Mr. Thiel, I admire your accomplishments.  

    But, just like in Fiddler on the roof song  If I were a rich man.. then "the most important men in town would come to fawn on me! They would ask me to advise them, Like a Solomon the Wise"

    So, please have some empathy for how social networks affect performance and how those social connections are heavily influenced by economic status.

    I think that comments like "so perhaps the real problem with affirmative action is that we are pretending to solve a problem that no longer exists" and another one like "It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix." add more confusion than clarification.

    I was admitted to the Ivy (and attended it) and scored higher than many of my classmates in nearly every silly exam that has existed.  If you saw me, would you be biased by the "not possible to tell whether "I" genuinely deserved admission to Ivy"?  I think you'd be biased, but correct me if I'm wrong.  Behind every minority, there is a fuller story.  Ask them, ask me how many times have I had to defend myself from the very accusation that "I must have not deserved admission and instead was helped".  There's a big difference between "he must prove to me he is smart?" and "he's smart unless he proves me wrong". I've been applied the former, you the latter

    All that said, I think that Affirmative action "as is" does not work.  But that a program to manage our personal biases in selecting candidates on the margin should exist, I say "without a question..."  In that way, we will be able to protect from some of the generalities that you actually cited on this article.


    Posted by Angelo Torres, Sr., MBA on Jan 31, 2016 5:45 PM


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