The Supreme Court is set next week to hear the affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Many people are troubled by affirmative action because they are convinced that it means less qualified (non-white) students are admitted over more qualified (white) ones. To them, that just seems unfair. (One may wonder how it compares to the unfairness of a public education system that generally offers much better schooling to suburban (white) students.)
In any case, how reliable is their measurement of merit? As an initial matter, if diversity in itself is valuable, then the ability to add to it makes you more qualified then someone who cannot. Of course, what people usually have in mind are test scores, grades, and recommendations. Yet do the best grades and recommendations, for example, necessarily go to the best students? Studies on unconscious biases suggest the answer may be no. Take the most recent entry in a long series of studies revealing that identical qualifications are evaluated differently based on the race or sex of a candidate. In this randomized double-blind Yale study, science professors were asked to evaluate men’s and women’s resumes. The resumes were exactly the same except that some bore a man’s name (John) and some bore a woman’s (Jennifer). Both men and women rated the male candidates higher, and were willing to pay them more. Again, these were the exact same resumes. It is not a huge leap to think the same kind unconscious bias regularly occurs in classrooms across the country — and this is only one way that unconscious bias might lead to unfair assessments.
Granted, affirmative action may be a crude way to compensate for structural inequality and unconscious biases. But realistically, what are the alternatives?