Does affirmative action produce more black lawyers?

Star Parker

1/4/2005 12:00:00 AM - Star Parker

A new and provocative study on affirmative action, which will appear in the Stanford Law Review this month, is attracting such attention that there is a special click-through on the publication's Web site to field questions about it. The conclusions of the study, that racial preferences at law schools produce fewer rather than more black lawyers, is already generating controversy that is sure to only increase.

The study, "A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools," argues, using statistical analysis, that although total elimination of racial preferences would cause a 14 percent reduction in the number of blacks accepted to law school, there would be an 8 percent increase in the number of blacks actually becoming lawyers. The reason for this, according to the analysis in the 100-plus page study, is because of the improvement in grades, graduation rates, and rates in passing bar examinations that would result from color-blind admissions policies.

The author of the study, Richard Sander, is a law professor at UCLA who is also trained as an economist. It is interesting to also note that, according to press profiles, Sander is a long-time liberal and advocate of race-conscious public policy. His apparent motive in doing the study was to provide rigorous analysis that would examine if indeed racial preferences produce the net benefit to blacks that are the alleged justification of these policies.

In a recent Los Angeles Times column, Sander makes it a point to avoid being placed in any ideological camp. His stance, inferred from the column, is that racial preferences are justifiable if they indeed lead to the goal of a color-blind society. On the question of law school preferences, he suggests eliminating, or cutting them back, because his data indicate that they hurt blacks and not because he opposes them in principle.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of Sander's study, that racial preferences in law schools result in a net reduction of new black lawyers, is an eye opener.

What can we expect now?

For those already staked out against affirmative action, Sander's study will simply fuel the fire and be touted as evidence supporting an already existing position.

We're already seeing the reaction from affirmative action advocates. They are challenging Sander's assumptions and conclusions. A central conclusion of the study that is aggressively being questioned is that elimination of preferences would only reduce black law school admissions by 14 percent. Some claim that it would be at least double that.

There are few issues that are more emotionally charged than affirmative action and few issues align opinion more clearly along racial lines. Less than half of white America supports affirmative action whereas seven out of 10 blacks support it. Less than one fourth of white Americans believe that race should be a factor in college admission policies, whereas half of blacks feel it should be a consideration.

Given the raw emotion that factors into attitudes on this issue, I doubt that Sander's study will produce any new major black initiative to support elimination of racial preferences.

However, I think it would be well worthwhile for black community leaders to take this study under advisement.

Although it may be reasonable to challenge Sander's methodology, he certainly cannot be painted with any ideological brush. This effort is not the product of a conservative think tank. If there is some reasonable probability that Sander's conclusions are correct, and there certainly is, then the conclusions that racial preferences actually impede black progress are serious.

While academics go on about the validity of Sander's analysis, blacks should make the safest and most prudent bet and assume that it is accurate. We should focus our attention on the real problem, which is that our kids are not getting the education at the K-12 levels to prepare them for the challenges of university life. The data that demonstrates this is beyond question.

The most important opportunity we have for revitalizing K-12 education is to provide alternatives to the public school system through school choice. Polls show equal support for this reform among blacks and whites. The task now is getting tangible plans in place to provide schooling alternatives for every black (and white) child.

We also need to mobilize our communities to address the single biggest factor that influences a child's success in school. Home life.

The preferences we should be worried about in our community are preferences for values over meaninglessness, love and marriage over promiscuity and abuse, and the pursuit of knowledge over the pursuit of politics. Regardless of the debate about Richard Sander's data, it is our success in these areas that will determine our children's future.