Discussing this article, PG wonders how much, if at all, affirmative action contributes to this environment.
[I]f students and professors believe that African American and Latino students are less capable than white and Asian students, because the former were admitted under an affirmative action program and the latter on a "merit-based" system, this itself may be a significant source of discriminatory attitudes that impede minority students' learning. Even more disturbingly, if affirmative action programs cause minority students to believe themselves less capable than their classmates, the stereotype can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There's probably something to this, but not all the much, primarily because the "stigma" attached to minority students as under-qualified doesn't really seem traceable to affirmative action. As PG herself notes, when affirmative action is eliminated, conservatives simply convince themselves it is still occurring in disguise -- even when the Black population of a university drops precipitously. More generally, as Richard Delgado has noted, negative perceptions and stereotypes of students of color in America have, by and large, dropped over the 30 year period in which affirmative action was most active. Admittedly, it's certainly possible that these trends were at cross-purposes, and that the overall rising racial progressivism of the past few decades masked the harmful effects of affirmative action. But for that thesis to hold, you'd have to argue that the greater positive (or at least, not negative) perceptions of African-Americans was largely disconnected from their increased visibility in elite institutions and universities, which strikes me as implausible. It's tougher to be racist when a quarter of your college is Black -- when you can see for yourself that they can, in fact, do the work and speak proper English and are not hyper-sexed bestial maniacs. And by contrast, racist stereotypes of Black inferiority are clearly reinforced when they are largely absent from the institutions that you yourself take part in (institutions which are, of course, perfectly "meritorious").
Also on the mis-match thesis, I'd echo Professor Delgado's argument that it seems to have a rather confused idea of how people view the opportunity to attend "elite" schools. The mis-match argument
presupposes that exposure to first-rate education is not good for you but bad. Going to a school with a favorable student-faculty ratio and studying under nationally acclaimed professors is good for whites, but not for blacks. This is truly paradoxical, and I am surprised bright people assert it. Rich people of all eras have been sending their sons and daughters not to the worst, but the best schools they could get them into, sometimes bending the rules to do so. There is little reason to believe that what is true for whites is not true for blacks, Mexicans, and other minorities. [Richard Delgado, Ten Arguments Against Affirmative Action -- How Valid?, 50 Ala. L. Rev. 135, 142 (1998)]
I'm currently applying to law schools. Some of them are, without a doubt, "reaches." Harvard, Stanford, and Yale (which I'm convinced doesn't actually admit anyone, but is just engaging in a high-yield racket of applications fees) all have entering class profiles which are stretches for my numbers (for all three, my LSAT score is above their 75th percentile, but my GPA is well below their 25th percentile). By contrast, I seem to be a better "match" for NYU, Columbia, or Chicago, where I am right in the numerical wheelhouse. Nonetheless, I do not want to be rejected from any of these schools (to repeat, if any admissions officers from the aforementioned schools reading this blog -- I very much wish to be admitted!). I want the opportunity to test my ideas against the very finest minds in the land. I thirst to be taught by the most talented professors in the land, and work with the best and brightest students around. How is this not a good thing?
Back when I was applying to undergraduate schools, I was told by an admissions officer at Cornell that they could admit an entering class comprised entirely of students they rejected, and it would not look any different from a "normal" Cornell class. Past accomplishments, performance, potential -- totally the same. The reason, she told me, was that 90% of Cornell applicants have the tools to be successful at Cornell -- they are "qualified" to be there. They would not be mis-matched. Once you can past that first hurdle of capability (and the vast majority of students -- of any color -- who are applying to schools like Cornell, Yale, Harvard, or Stanford are extraordinarily capable and thus "qualified" in this sense), the question ceases to be about effectiveness, and turns into what each individual student is bringing to the table vis-a-vis his or her peers. That subjective, that's contingent on the vagaries of the applicant pool, and that's very difficult to map on to the concept of "merit". In a sense, it's unfair. But it certainly doesn't lead to mis-matches, unless something goes badly, badly wrong.