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April 17, 2003

Depressing Realities of Affirmative Action


I just got done going over “Myths and Realities About Affirmative Action” by Stuart Taylor Jr. on The Atlantic Online (which you can read here.) It lays out, rather depressingly, a number of dismal aspects of our national project of racial preferences. To give three examples:

· Most white and Asian applicants rejected on account of preferences are not privileged. Indeed, the Century Foundation data suggest, they may well be less affluent on average than the black and Hispanic students who receive racial preferences.

· Most of the students who lose out because of racial preferences are not white; they are Asian-American, The New York Times suggested in a February 2 article, based largely on surging admissions of Asians and largely flat admissions of whites since racial preferences were banned in California and Texas.

· More and more preferences go to descendants not of slaves but of Hispanic immigrants.

I use the word depressing because it would be so much more pleasant if the liberal narrative of affirmative action were accurate—if it really were a case of downtrodden minorities getting their chance at the big time despite lingering white racism. I mean, that’s a far better story, in Hollywood terms, than what appears to be really going on here. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the following item just seemed to smack even my lingering illusions right in the face (and, I’m well aware that many readers of this ‘blog think I’m well to the right of Atilla the Hun):

Myth. The SAT and other standardized tests are culturally biased.

Reality. It's true that there are large racial disparities in average SAT scores—1070 for Asians, 1060 for whites, 910 for Hispanics, and 857 for blacks among seniors in 2002, according to the College Board. But if these scores understated blacks' academic potential, then blacks would do better in college than whites and Asians with similar scores. The opposite is the case: Black and Hispanic students "have college grade-point averages that are significantly lower than those of whites and Asians" with similar scores, according to a 1999 College Board report.

I guess the whole topic seems to be such a bummer (okay, so the word dates me) is because it forces us to admit we can’t simultaneously believe in “making up for the past” and “meritocracy.” If we want to make up for past ugliness, we have to create present ugliness—with that present ugliness amounting to a nod, a wink, and the cynical comment: “Hey, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Maybe wholehearted supporters of affirmative action never had any illusions of meritocracy. They long ago spotted the fact that whoever walks away from college with a degree is a winner, and the devil take the hindmost regarding whatever funny business it takes to get that diploma. But I guess I still cherish a few illusions—although it seems like they’re fading fast.



P.S. An interesting alternative to affirmative action as it is currently practiced is presented here.

posted by Friedrich at April 17, 2003


Friedrich --

As you might say, "even I can see you palm that card". You can't prove one assertion -- that SATs aren't culturally biased -- by assuming a much more questionable one -- that there's a useful correlation between SAT scores and college results.

Fact is, there's lots of affirmative action going on in colleges already. Most colleges freely admit that if you're a "legacy", especially the offspring of someone who's already donated significant amounts of money to the school, then you're much, much more likely to get in than anybody whose only claim to preference is the colour of their skin. And that's just one example.

There are lots of reasons for affirmative action, but the idea that "white and Asian applicants rejected on account of preferences" are economically privileged, and therefore somehow bizarrely deserving of discrimination, is most definitely not one of them. If this is the best straw man you can knock down, I'll continue my support of affirmative action, thanks.

Posted by: Felix on April 18, 2003 10:17 AM

Anyone who has quarrels with affirmative action will enjoy this Stanley Rothman piece from the Times, here. Rothman actually went out and looked into how the programs worked, and how the people involved felt about them. Sample passage:

"Diversity fails to deliver even when all else is equal. When we controlled for other demographic and institutional factors like the respondent's race, gender, economic background and religion, or an institution's public or private status, selectivity and whether it offers an ethnic or racial studies program, the results were surprising. A higher level of diversity is associated with somewhat less educational satisfaction and worse race relations among students."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 18, 2003 11:07 AM


If you think I'm going to argue any of these points ferociously, you're wrong; I meant what I said in the posting that all of this is somehow more disquieting than a simple "meta narrative" of white racism and black oppression. After all, that narrative suggests a fairly straightforward solution. The real problem seems very much more murky.

Nonetheless, with that disclaimer, I think your doubting a useful correlation between SAT scores and college results skips past Stuart Taylor Jr.'s logic in that bit:

But if these [standardized test] scores understated blacks' academic potential, then blacks would do better in college than whites and Asians with similar scores. The opposite is the case...

In short, if SAT tests are culturally biased, then the victims of that bias should show superior subsequent performance relative to the subsequent performance of people who benefitted from that bias. They would perform better than they tested. Bias, to qualify as bias, must ultimately be detectable. If the gunsights are erroneous for some candidates in the first round of a marksmanship test, when those same candidates are given an accurately sighted gun, they should do markedly better in subsequent rounds than their first score would indicate. Apparently that is not the case in affirmative action.

And as for arguments that other groups get preferential treatment--that doesn't make me feel any better. As I have said over and over in previous posts, colleges are very imperfect meritocracies, but for some odd reason society reacts to them as if they were perfect meritocracies. This discontinuity is naturally seized on by all sorts of people eager to game the system. Assuming one is a supporter of meritocracy (which I am), one would want society to wise up or colleges to class up their act--which would probably include dialing back on this racial spoils system as well as the sports spoils system, the "legacy" spoils system, etc. While all of these are abhorrent, only the "legacy" system has the potential to rival the social divisiveness of race as a category for preferential treatment--so we should probably start with those two.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2003 12:18 PM

Friedrich -- Oops, my bad, as they say. You're right, I did misunderstand the logic of the excerpt you cited. But it's still not a particularly strong argument. If SATs were culturally biased, but colleges were more culturally biased, then you'd expect the same results. And you might well implement an affirmative-action system in an attempt to redress that cultural bias in your own institution. Now, Michael might be right, and affirmative-action programs might not have the intended effect (law of unintended consequences, and all that). But the very fact that blacks' college performance is lower than their SAT scores might predict is prima facie evidence that there is something systemic going on here which, at the margin, benefits whites (and probably Asians too) and does very badly by blacks (and, to a lesser degree, hispanics). Maybe affirmative action is not the answer to the problem, but it would probably be a better use of resources to try and work out exactly what the problem is and how it should be tackled, than it is to go on the attack against affirmative action -- which, after all, is just a symptom of a deeper malaise.

As for meritocracies, legacies, etc, the New Yorker had a wonderful piece about all that a couple of weeks ago, as I recall. Even if you believe in meritocracy (and anyone who's been following Nick Lemann on the subject must surely have his doubts) it's clear that the legacy system ain't going anywhere: the colleges need it too much. Rather than attack affirmative action in the hope that maybe legacies might come next, I think it would be much more useful to simply acknowledge that colleges aren't meritocracies, that getting in to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/etc is actually not the Single Most Important Thing In The World, and that the whole cultural mindset surrounding elite universities, at least at the undergraduate level, should be toned down enormously. You didn't get in to XYZ College? It doesn't matter! You're white, and you think that might be why? It still doesn't matter! Far too many people believe these universities' own hype about the importance of attending them as an undergrad, when in fact many if not most of their students could well be better served in much less storied institutions. It wasn't long ago, for instance, that I had a debate on this very website about whether it was the role of big-name university professors at big-name universities to teach undergraduates. Laurel, who thought it was, would probably be happier at a teaching college than at one where professors' main job is to be an academic superstar, get lots of citations in learned journals, and occasionally maybe turn out some original research themselves.

We're getting a long way from affirmative action here, I know, but you can probably see where I'm going with this: let's concentrate on the undergraduate experience, rather than on academic achievement. Of course Harvard undergrads are going to do better: Harvard has the choice of the brightest kids in America, and chooses the best of them. But that doesn't mean they get the best education or tuition, and it doesn't mean that someone who didn't get in there should feel upset about the fact. And if Harvard wants to pay attention to factors other than SAT scores and essay-writing ability -- if it wants to recruit more blacks to its undergraduate class, for whatever reason -- let's let it do so. If such action is a bad idea, Harvard is damaging itself much more than it is a marginal white kid who ends up going to Cornell instead.

Posted by: Felix on April 18, 2003 01:05 PM

I wonder about similar things sometimes. I mean, why not just let everyone and every place "discriminate" (ie., make choices) as they see fit? Harvard and Berkeley included. Why fret so much over enforcing "fairness" (defined how? by whom? according to what criteria? -- all these questions and arguments instantly follow)? Why not let the chips fall where they will? If Harvard does affirmative-action or legacy-rewarding in a way that damages its reputation, it'll lose prestige, so at least it has some incentive to behave not-too-stupidly. Walter Williams, the black libertarian economist, makes a similar argument, if I remember right. If a business owner wants to employ nothing but green-eyed Martians, well, why not? He probably won't be a business owner for long, so why should we worry too much? If a college is more devoted to PC social engineering (or to legacy-admissions) than to delivering a decent education, then it may well not continue to exist (or only manage to exist as a joke) as word gets out. Williams argues that market mechanisms are the best way to take care of these matters, and that enforcing fairness (whether of the anti or pro affirmative action sort) is insanely inefficient...

On a more realistic level, I remember once wondering out loud why more colleges didn't simply go their own way. Someone explained to me that they couldn't. Nearly all American colleges and universities, he told me, get Federal money, and if you get Fed dough, you play by Fed rules. Isn't that the reason that oddball conservative college (Highland, High-something-or-other) in Michigan refuses government money? So it can run itself as it sees fit? For better or worse, presumably. So the devil, in any case, is in accepting money from the government...

Take these as musings, not as arguments, por favor.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 18, 2003 02:32 PM

Oops, forgot one thing I meant to include in previous comment. And Friedrich, you certainly know more about this than I do, so I'm prompting rather than lecturing here...

Someone once explained to me that there already exists a big, official exception to the affirmative-action blues. You can see it every time you go into what's known in NYC as a "Korean deli." It's small, family-owned businesses. They're allowed to "discriminate" on grounds other businesses aren't, or are at least exempted from living up to any semi-quota. Why? Are you going to go after a Korean deli because all the employees are Korean? I guess the reasoning is that well, hey, a small business might be entirely made up of extended-family members, and how can anyone object to that?

I guess the fuzzy-edges of this exemption are fascinating. I recall, probably wrongly, that this exemption holds up to something like 22 employees. Why 22? Dunno. Why not 18? Why not 22,000? Why does a line need to be drawn anywhere?

Again, musings. Probably based on mis-remembering shaky facts. Still, eager to hear corrections and real thinking here...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 18, 2003 02:50 PM

"if you get Fed dough, you play by Fed rules" -- can you point me to anything more detailed on this? If a biochemistry research laboratory gets a grant from the Centers for Disease Control to look into some pathogen, does that mean that the lab's parent's undergraduate admissions process has to conform to all manner of bureaucratic regulations?

Posted by: Felix on April 18, 2003 02:53 PM

Korean delis, I'm sure, don't feel particularly protected: three of them just settled a $315,000 lawsuit, and now hundreds of others are being "educated" by the NY Attorney General on things like minimum wage laws. Overwhelmingly, the abuses at Korean delis take the form of Korean owners underpaying Mexican or other hispanic workers. See for a bit more on this. In general, I think the reason that people don't go after Korean delis because all the employees are Korean is that all the employees are actually Mexican. But your broader point remains, I don't know the law on this subject. (For another take on such matters, click here...)

Posted by: Felix on April 18, 2003 03:00 PM

No substance at all to what I'm relating aside from hearsay, and I'm eager for people with actual knowledge to kick in here. As for question #1 (does accepting research money from the Feds oblige the admissions committee to conform to Fed-style regulations), the answer I was given by my source was yes. But, like I say, I'm just passing along what someone told me. And I'd love to know more about the small-family-business exemption, assuming I was informed accurately about it. How it works, what the rationale is, on what basis it's been challenged, etc etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 18, 2003 03:08 PM

Friedrich, you never say what you do believe in. What are the realities behind those illusions that you cherish? Is it the fact that greater access to a wider variety of students (and professors) is a good thing for university communities? And darn if the women don't add a little something to the mix, too. When comparing my own lousy Ivy League college (to adopt a particlar Blowhard endearment) circa 1953 with 2003, I'm very proud of how they've harvested such a stunning array of talents that just happen to reflect very different backgrounds from around the country and the world.

It is a fact, not an illusion, that this is a nation of immigrant groups with varied traditions and cultural values. Yet it is a single nation, composed of taxpaying persons, each of whom is surely entitled to representation in the country's institutions: the more public the institution, the more the person's right to representation. I suppose I believe that if we can claim common rights to our public institutions, especially education, then we will help ouselves to cohere and develop sympathetically as a nation.

As for the elite institutions that form the crux of the debate on affirmative action, it is a fact, not an illusion, that these enterprises are designed to attract and serve the kind of communities that they wish to create. They exercise their own discretion in creating those communities, and as enterprises, they'll succeed or fail on those decisions. I reckon each institution would be able to address whether they've succeeded or failed in creating an ideal community -- if they care to. I know that my own alma mater has implemented a policy of underwriting the costs of the students they accept. Beyond a need-blind policy, Princeton has now eliminated financial hardship from the equation for prospective students, and pays the way for anyone they accept. If Stuart Taylor or others wish to discuss the correlations among affirmative action, economics (or socioeconomics, or class), community, and excellence, they should make Princeton a case study.

You've made an earnest foray into the matter (and thanks for prompting me to do the same). However, I'm not as convinced of Taylor's qualifications as an arbiter of merit.

Posted by: M on April 19, 2003 07:14 AM


This discussion is fairly easily muddled by combining different types of institutions. Private colleges or universities are completely free, in my view, to build any kind of institution they want. This may, at some point, cause them friction over mandates attached to Federal funding, but that's their lookout. The case in question, however, is a public university, the University of Michigan, both at the undergraduate level and at the Law School. The question then becomes what is the intent of the legislature in creating such an institution, and how that intent will be reflected in the institution's admissions policy, assuming more people want to get in than funding allows. If the creation of a student body that reflects the racial, ethnic and class features of the entire state achieves the legislature's vision for the school, then that's who should get in. The same if the legislature's vision requires a student body that mimics the distribution of height in the general population. However, if attendance at the university provides some advantages to the student body, it would behoove the university to make it as objectively clear as possible what criteria will be used to let students in, so that every citizen would have a fair chance at getting in. For example, privately favoring the admission of relatives of the admissions staff would certainly strike me as an inadmissable use of public funds. (There are levels and levels of fairness here, so to speak.)

Having been for several decades a resident of the state of Michigan, I would seriously doubt that either of my hypothetical examples is the stated purpose of the school. I suspect the legislature in founding the University of Michigan intended to further the economic prospects of the state by developing a highly educated work force, and probably thought that the most intellectually gifted students would provide the biggest "bang for the buck" to the Michigan economy. Surely you recognize that the post World War II movements in higher education that opened American universities to the most gifted students constituted a revolutionary development in the history of "meritocracy." This revolution certainly was responsible, in time, for the opening of university education to women, who now make up a majority of all college students. I, for one, do not feel that it is a step forward to abandon this "objective" approach for one which favors one group or another over the rest, especially in a manner that clearly undercuts the whole notion of meritocracy.

Obviously, a large number of people seem very happy with the notion that students should be chosen on the basis of non-intellectual credentials for an intellectually-oriented education; I'm not one of them. The effect of allowing individuals to attend based on their status as legacies or athletes or presidents of their senior class always seemed to me to promote a "careerist" attitude among the student body; a view of life as the polishing of a golden resume, intended to eventually pay off in terms of money, power, prestige. I was astonished during my years at a Lousy Ivy University to see how little interest most of my fellow students actually had in ideas, and how desperate they were to avoid the taint of "intellectuality." Heck, pretty much, they all (male and female)wanted to come off as jocks, and they all hoped to make heavy bread working for big corporations. If you want to strengthen this tendency, I suggest we work really hard to undermine the notion of an intellectual meritocracy in the university education.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 21, 2003 06:09 PM


Despite a sheepskin from a lousy you-know-what, I'm not an intellectual heavyweight. I will, however, try to argue my point of view.

You say, "it would behoove the university to make it as objectively clear as possible what criteria will be used to let students in, so that every citizen would have a fair chance at getting in": I agree that this should be a policy: absolute and complete disclosure of the admissions policy. Schools are pretty cagey about this, and it's part of the problem. There may be a slippery slope to justifying who's accepted, case by case, but maybe that's worth bringing into the open, including the defense of exactly who these choosy institutions believe will benefit their community.

You say, "the post World War II movements in higher education... opened American universities to the most gifted students": if you're referring to the GI Bill, I don't think it qualified students as being gifted intellectually, but just as being GIs. Therefore, I don't think the GI Bill revolutionized the "development [of] the history of 'meritocracy'", I think it's more evidence of the power of democratic opportunity, that is, it addresses socioeconomic impediments moreso than intellectual virtues.

"This [GI Bill] revolution certainly was responsible, in time, for the opening of university education to women, who now make up a majority of all college students." Maybe. And maybe it was Civil Rights. Princeton didn't open up to women until 1969, well after the post-WWII GI Bill era, but certainly during the flush of social changes following Civil Rights.

You say, "I, for one, do not feel that it is a step forward to abandon this 'objective' approach for one which favors one group... over the rest": What 'objective' approach do you mean? GIs fought in the war. Women were excluded on the basis of gender. So women and GIs can justifiably be accepted on the basis of merit, and not others? It is problematic to define "others" or "groups", of course, much less defining "merit," but I agree that it is not a step forward to undo the progress that has been made thus far. I am interested in seeing the debate move ahead to refinements of affirmative action, such as those I mentioned at Princeton with its need-blind admissions policy plus tuition grants for those admitted.

An "intellectual meritocracy," as you call it, if practiced perfectly, would not necessarily be part of the existing tradition at Michigan or at a lousy Ivy League college or anywhere else. It would be an excellent entrepreneurial opportunity, however, if others are as keen as you on the idea. First, though, I think you're going to have to explain your methods of isolating and quantifying intellectual ability over and against all of the other acuities that make people so diverse and interesting. I wouldn't advocate such as system, personally: what's the point of intellectual ability if removed from the realm of practicality. You can study art; you can be an artist -- must the two live in isolation?

Posted by: M on April 22, 2003 11:38 PM


In response to your comment I started doing a little research on affirmative action and rapidly came to the conclusion that before I can do justice to the questions this topic raises, I need to do a great deal more reading on the subject. My (currently uneducated guess) however, is that the lack of commonly available data on this subject, just like the lack of transparency in admissions standards, is no accident: such a massive degree of confidentiality/secrecy would seem hard to explain other than by actions that the university nomenklatura thinks will be "misinterpreted" or "controversial" when exposed to the general public. Of course, perhaps there's a more innocent explanation; in any event, I intend to find out, and I will write up a posting on this as soon as I'm done.

I would ask, however, one question. In your earlier comment you write:

Yet [the USA] is a single nation, composed of taxpaying persons, each of whom is surely entitled to representation in the country's institutions: the more public the institution, the more the person's right to representation. I suppose I believe that if we can claim common rights to our public institutions, especially education, then we will help ouselves to cohere and develop sympathetically as a nation.

...which I take to mean that all classes and ethnic groups should be "represented" at public universities. Of course, if we want universities to "look like America" that will imply limiting as well as encouraging various groups. Two come to mind: (1) Jews, which your alma mater (Princeton) admitted under an explicit quota earlier in the last century in order to avoid their over-representation among the student body, and (2) Asians, who received an "apology" from the President of the U.C. Berkley campus in the late 1980s for admissions policies deliberately designed to limit their numbers. In both cases, these groups were present on university campuses in numbers totally disproportionate to their presence in the general population. Does your view of how a proper student body is assembled find it legitimate to limit the presence of such groups?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 23, 2003 02:19 PM

Ligher observations - Stanley Rothman - didn't get it. Unable to draw an equal sign between his examination of "diversity" and affirmative action. Seemed as though he was refuting the idea that affirmative action brought the benefits of diversity to an institution.

"Harvard has the choice of the brightest kids in America, and chooses the best of them." I'm assuming both blowhards must know some Harvard faculty. Don't you hear complains that Harvard kids are merely the best ass-kissers? (This suck-up population seems to have arrived, always, shortly after the speaker's class graduated.)

"Why not let the chips fall where they will?" Uh... because this is a racists society and we're supposed to be trying to fix it?

As far as exemptions, the idea is that small businesses face financial hardship. Because a bendy pencil and novelty shop in nowhere Idaho would have a hard time hiring non-whites, the Korean deli thrives. This does not explain why all kitchen workers in all restaurants in the entire United States are Mexican, though.

Posted by: j.c. on April 23, 2003 04:31 PM

Hey J.C. -- I think you got Stanley Rothman just right. His question was, "well, what if any educational benefits does this highly-sought 'diversity' thing actually bring?" And his results suggested that "diversity" actually lowers the quality of education -- in the eyes of profs and students alike. Implicit question: so why would we bother?

Good crack about Harvard brats, by the way.

Do you think we have such a racist society? Individual acts of racism acknowledged and deplored, of course, it's still striking to me (for a couple of examples) how well Asians and Jews have done for themselves, that black Caribbean immigrants are currently doing better than white immigrants, and that black women are currently doing remarkably well. I've spent the last over-20 years working mostly for women, one of whom was a lesbian. Girls outnumber boys on campus, my sister makes ten times my salary, and two of my bosses are black. More power to all of 'em. But, from where I sit, this is hardly the picture of a society in need of a massive and urgent program of anti-racism. (I know I'm unfairly mixing the female/male thing in there -- couldn't resist.) Is it a seething hotbed of racism in need of lots of bureaucratic intervention out where you live?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 23, 2003 08:11 PM

"his results suggested that 'diversity' actually lowers the quality of education -- in the eyes of profs and students alike": Blame diversity, then. And blame the students. And especially blame the profs. And I think I might blame Rothman, too. It's so easy. But it won't get you nearer to addressing the issues that most affect the quality of a college experience. What about curriculum design? Or how about profs and administrators and their careerist tendencies? Sky-high tuition levels? Grade inflation? Preparation at the secondary level? Career prospects? Graduate school prospects? Quality and cost of housing? Psychological crises? Opportunities to socialize? Give me some constructive parameters for discussion. Or blame diversity, but I'll have to tune you out.

Re whether certain groups' numbers should be limited in a university community, eg, Asians and Jews, I think that Felix's earlier comment is a good, refreshing dose of reality. In the US, there are plenty of alternatives for talented, resourceful, and determined students. I could kick up some dust and suggest that these students are looking for the best cosmopolitan experience they can find, and they're looking for marquee value, and maybe the quality of the program is only a mitigating consideration. But plenty of excellent niche-serving schools exist because one school can't be all things to all people. Consider Caltech, Morehouse, Oberlin, West Point, etc, etc.

If a school chose to recruit and accommodate the best Jewish or Asian students, and to market itself as such, I imagine they'd do very well. And here's another group to consider: international students. Educating international students seems to be quite an industry in Australia. And I was surprised to learn from a colleague that a school in Iowa is very popular with ethnic Chinese Indonesian students. A Singaporean was valedictorian at Princeton in 1999, and five students from S'pore were admitted this year. Should we now discuss whether the international students are crowding out other worthy American students?

Posted by: M on April 24, 2003 03:26 AM


Sorry, didn't understand your last comment at all. I suggest we defer further discussion for a few days until I'm prepared to post on it again.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 24, 2003 11:43 AM

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