In 1969, Justice Macklin Fleming of the California Court of Appeal wrote a letter to the dean of Yale University's law school objecting to the institution's brand new affirmative action plan. Yale law intended to implement a quota system: 10 percent of the incoming class would be black, regardless of qualification.
Fleming was passionately opposed to race-based admissions, for one major reason: he thought that admitting students on the basis of skin color—rather than merit—would "serve to perpetuate the very ideas and prejudices it is designed to combat," in his words. If Yale routinely admitted under-qualified candidates because they were black, the result would be that black people at Yale would under-perform in class relative to other students. This could have the unintended effect of causing students to believe that black people were academically inferior.
"If in a given class the great majority of the black students are at the bottom of the class, this factor is bound to instill, unconsciously at least, some sense of intellectual superiority among the white students and some sense of intellectual inferiority among the black students," wrote Fleming. "Such a pairing in the same school of the brightest white students in the country with black students of mediocre academic qualifications is social experiment with loaded dice and a stacked deck."
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University who recently wrote about Fleming's letter, points out that anecdotal experience with group differences is a powerful factor in the creation of stereotypes:
People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.
In other words, white students might come to believe that black people aren't as smart. They would be wrong to think this, of course—but their narrow classroom experience would suggest it to them, nevertheless.
Take careful note of what this means—and what it does not. Neither Fleming nor Haidt (nor I) are suggesting that racism is valid, or that people of one race are inferior to people of another race, in terms of intelligence or anything else. Rather, we are pointing out that when administrators artificially sort people according to race in a manner ordained by race-based college admissions, they will inflame tensions by creating a false race-based achievement gap. In this way, efforts to increase diversity and combat racism are actually worsening the problem.
And that's not all. Fleming's letter, according to Haidt, also predicts with stunning accuracy how these differences would eventually come to dominate campus life (emphasis mine):
No one can be expected to accept an inferior status willingly. The black students, unable to compete on even terms in the study of law, inevitably will seek other means to achieve recognition and self-expression. This is likely to take two forms. First, agitation to change the environment from one in which they are unable to compete to one in which they can. Demands will be made for elimination of competition, reduction in standards of performance, adoption of courses of study which do not require intensive legal analysis, and recognition for academic credit of sociological activities which have only an indirect relationship to legal training. Second, it seems probable that this group will seek personal satisfaction and public recognition by aggressive conduct, which, although ostensibly directed at external injustices and problems, will in fact be primarily motivated by the psychological needs of the members of the group to overcome feelings of inferiority caused by lack of success in their studies. Since the common denominator of the group of students with lower qualifications is one of race this aggressive expression will undoubtedly take the form of racial demands–the employment of faculty on the basis of race, a marking system based on race, the establishment of a black curriculum and a black law journal, an increase in black financial aid, and a rule against expulsion of black students who fail to satisfy minimum academic standards.
Of course, these are precisely the things that groups of marginalized students have been demanding with increasing frequency in recent years. They want social justice colleges that put activism before rigorous education, separate "safe spaces" for students of color, and emotional security.
For 50 years, race-based admissions have fomented racial inequality and feelings of inferiority on campus. The modern war on college free expression is, as Justice Fleming predicted, the inevitable result. We have university administrators to thank for that, too.