This argument seems to be buttressed by a new paper that uses Harvard admissions data, exposed by the lawsuit against its treatment of Asian applicants, to estimate the importance of preferences for athletes, legacies, the children of donors and Harvard faculty. The authors find, not surprisingly, that those preferences benefit the white and well-to-do: More than 43 percent of white admittees to Harvards had those advantages, and roughly three-quarters of that 43 percent wouldn’t have gotten in without them.

However, dropping those preferences might not alter the racial mix dramatically. In the study’s simulations, the white share of the Harvard student body fell by 4 percent without legacy admissions and 6 percent without athletic preferences, while minority shares increased by comparable percentages. The authors suggest their statistical methods are limited and the real changes could be larger. But it’s still a sharp contrast with the simulation that eliminated racial preferences. That change reduced Hispanic and black numbers by about 40 percent and 70 percent, while Asian numbers climbed by over 50 percent; white numbers barely budged.

It may be that white percentages stay pretty stable, even without upper-class affirmative action, because white legacies and athletes are often admitted at the expense of less-affluent white kids, rather than minorities.