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William Bowen and Derek Bok don’t look ready to save affirmative action, though it’s in desperate need of saviors. Former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, the two pleasant old white men are sitting at a wooden conference table on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, surrounded by paintings of other pleasant old white men and by writers nibbling scones served on china. Bowen and Bok have come to tout their new book, The Shape of the River, which purports to offer a wealth of new evidence showing that race-conscious admissions policies should continue.

Always controversial, racial preferences have begun to crumble in some states. In 1996, a federal appeals court ruled in Hopwood vs. Texas that colleges cannot consider race when admitting students; another challenge is pending in Michigan. Californians voted that same year to end affirmative action, and Washington voters followed suit last fall.

Bowen and Bok’s timing is perfect, then, and favorable notices for the book have appeared in dozens of papers and magazines. Bowen “lost track” of the many entreaties to speak in Washington before the state’s vote. One reason their study was so anticipated is that conservatives have lately been winning a lopsided intellectual war. 1997’s America in Black and White, by Stephan and Abigail M. Thernstrom, argued that racial preferences create civic tension, stigmatize the beneficiaries, and demoralize insufficiently prepared minorities sent to tough schools. Centrists have been arguing that we should keep preferences but give them to poor kids, not minority ones. Defenders of old-fashioned preferences haven’t done much to refute these critiques so far.

But while affirmative action needs a vigorous, from-the-ramparts defense, Bowen and Bok have provided a dry volume that doesn’t prove its most important assertions and leaves intact most intellectual challenges to the beleaguered concept of racial preferences.

Drawing on a survey of 45,184 students who attended 28 of the most selective American universities in the last 50 years, Bowen and Bok show that the white graduates of these schools were no more likely than the black to have earned advanced degrees (suggesting that despite any differences on arrival, they left just as prepared). The black graduates were more active in civic activities (suggesting a larger benefit to affirmative action). The blacks were nearly as likely as the whites to say they were “very satisfied” with college (suggesting that they didn’t feel stigmatized). Finally, both blacks and whites overwhelmingly approved of efforts to diversify their campuses (suggesting that preferences don’t raise tensions on campus).

One shortcoming is immediately apparent: Nearly all the authors’ principal findings deal with blacks and whites, ignoring Latinos and others who are a big part of the current debate. What’s more, the finding showing identical rates of earning advanced degrees is far too limited to disprove conservatives’ central claim—that minorities who would have been rejected without affirmative action “find it hard to keep up,” as the Thernstroms put it. Blacks at these schools fail to graduate at the same rate as whites (75 percent versus 86 percent, according to Bowen and Bok’s figures). Some of that difference can be attributed to finances—more of the blacks come from poor families, which can’t always afford all four years—but it’s still true that a greater percentage of black students than white fail out. (Even Bowen and Bok concede that black students tend to get lower grades.)

Next, it’s a stretch to extrapolate from surveys revealing that years afterward blacks were “very satisfied” with college to say that affirmative action didn’t stigmatize them. They might still have felt unmotivated or inferior because their race helped them get in—feelings that surveys may never show. Indeed, the authors concede that “experimental evidence” shows that part of the reason minorities get lower grades is that they are distracted and hurt by stereotypes.

Finally, Bowen and Bok are proud of their findings suggesting that students nowadays love diversity, but what else are students going to say? Diversity is promoted more heavily in elite schools than football teams. And anyway, saying you like it and actually liking it are different: At Harvard, where Bok was president from 1971 until 1991, the residential houses had become so self-segregated by the end of his tenure that the college began forcing students to pick houses by random lottery shortly thereafter.

The biggest problem with the book isn’t what’s in it but what is not. The authors say little about why we should favor minorities (rather than poor people—or no one) in admissions, and the moral volume on what they do say is turned so low it’s barely audible. They suggest that a racially diverse workplace demands employees with interaction skills, and at one point they note that whites “need” blacks so they can learn to cope with race (which seems thin gruel to African-Americans: You serve whites’ desire and need to deal with minorities). For better or worse—mostly worse—the politics of affirmative action are driven by whities who think it screws them. Unfortunately, Bowen and Bok offer little to change their minds.CP