Socioeconomic Disadvantage vs. Race

The ever-vigilant Erin O’Connor has alerted me to an interesting article today in the Michigan Daily that discusses the relative merits of bonus points for socioeconomic disadvantage or race.

Curt Levey, spokesman for the Center for Individual Rights, the organization representing the plaintiffs in the Michigan cases, is quoted observing that “[v]ery few people can really justify why the son of a white coal miner gets zero points and the son of a black physician gets 20 points.”

University of Michigan spokeswoman Julie Peterson replies:

“Race (or) ethnicity and socioeconomic disadvantage are two completely different things,” Peterson said. “The majority of applicants who come from poor families are white. If we considered only socioeconomic disadvantage, we would not succeed in enrolling a racially diverse student body.”

There’s more. Ms. Peterson also defends strictly racial preferences as a way “to break down stereotypes,” allowing students “to be able to see differences within groups, and similarities across racial boundaries.” Critics argue, on the other hand, that preferences re-inforce the stereotype that minorities are incapable of meeting the same standards as whites.

I am increasingly convinced, however, that this debate reveals, or should reveal, a truth that usually goes unrecognized: racial preferences are primarily for the benefit of whites, who, so the argument goes, need to be exposed to minorities. They are not justified as a benefit to the preferred minorities, who, as I’ve pointed out here and elsewhere, would receive the same diversity benefit even if they attended a less selective university.

Thus, when Michigan defends racial preferences, it is essentially arguing that it is not fair to white and Asian students to deprive them of the benefit of being exposed to minority students who would not be admitted but for the racial preferences given them. When critics of racial preferences such as Mr. Levey argue in favor of socioeconomic preference instead, they are arguing that refusing preferences to poor people is not fair to those unpreferred sons of coal miners, etc.

Say What? (9)

  1. Kate March 15, 2003 at 10:31 am | | Reply

    But wouldn’t the poor white kid have rather different opinions, life experiences than the rich black kid? The opinions and the experiences of the well to do are remarkably the same, no matter what their race.

    WHy not just spray paint ever third person in line at registration? Voila–instant colors.

  2. dustbury.com March 15, 2003 at 12:48 pm | | Reply

    And we can’t jump, either

    Julie Peterson, speaking for the University of Michigan on the value of their (and presumably other) affirmative-action programs, as quoted

  3. Anonymous March 18, 2003 at 12:05 pm | | Reply

    I’ve always regarded the “affirmative action benefits whites” argument to be the absolute dumbest contention to come along in publicy policy debates in ages. It’s akin to those who claimed that segregation or slavery somehow benefitted blacks; that a program never intended to help a racial group that actively denies them social benefits is somehow still in their best interests.

    Moreover, I have other problems with the “diversity benefit” argument:

    1) Let’s say affirmative action increases enrollment by 5% to 10% at a college, which isn’t uncommon. It doubles it. So in an average class of 30 students, you have three minority students instead of one or two. Is this really supposed to provide a significant benefit?

    2) Kate is correct. Race doesn’t necessarily correlate with diverse life experience. This is especially true in college admissions, where the overwhelming majority of black applicants are middle class and thus have similar life experiences to their white counterparts. Race isn’t a valid proxy for anything but asthetic diversity.

    3) How far are we willing to go with ‘diversity?’ Why not take into account factors besides race? If we do, do we risk sacrificing merit? Can this argument really be applied without massive inconsistancy?

    Valid concerns all.

  4. Owen Courrèges March 18, 2003 at 12:05 pm | | Reply

    I’ve always regarded the “affirmative action benefits whites” argument to be the absolute dumbest contention to come along in publicy policy debates in ages. It’s akin to those who claimed that segregation or slavery somehow benefitted blacks; that a program never intended to help a racial group that actively denies them social benefits is somehow still in their best interests.

    Moreover, I have other problems with the “diversity benefit” argument:

    1) Let’s say affirmative action increases enrollment by 5% to 10% at a college, which isn’t uncommon. It doubles it. So in an average class of 30 students, you have three minority students instead of one or two. Is this really supposed to provide a significant benefit?

    2) Kate is correct. Race doesn’t necessarily correlate with diverse life experience. This is especially true in college admissions, where the overwhelming majority of black applicants are middle class and thus have similar life experiences to their white counterparts. Race isn’t a valid proxy for anything but asthetic diversity.

    3) How far are we willing to go with ‘diversity?’ Why not take into account factors besides race? If we do, do we risk sacrificing merit? Can this argument really be applied without massive inconsistancy?

    Valid concerns all.

  5. Anonymous March 18, 2003 at 12:05 pm | | Reply

    I’ve always regarded the “affirmative action benefits whites” argument to be the absolute dumbest contention to come along in publicy policy debates in ages. It’s akin to those who claimed that segregation or slavery somehow benefitted blacks; that a program never intended to help a racial group that actively denies them social benefits is somehow still in their best interests.

    Moreover, I have other problems with the “diversity benefit” argument:

    1) Let’s say affirmative action increases enrollment by 5% to 10% at a college, which isn’t uncommon. It doubles it. So in an average class of 30 students, you have three minority students instead of one or two. Is this really supposed to provide a significant benefit?

    2) Kate is correct. Race doesn’t necessarily correlate with diverse life experience. This is especially true in college admissions, where the overwhelming majority of black applicants are middle class and thus have similar life experiences to their white counterparts. Race isn’t a valid proxy for anything but asthetic diversity.

    3) How far are we willing to go with ‘diversity?’ Why not take into account factors besides race? If we do, do we risk sacrificing merit? Can this argument really be applied without massive inconsistancy?

    Valid concerns all.

  6. Robert A. August 5, 2004 at 5:22 pm | | Reply

    Gosh, racial diversity is for the benefit of whites? I thought that according to the U. S. Supreme Court (Grutter v. Bollinger) it was for the benefit of Microsoft and IBM.

    As a point of political activism, I have taken to including a “diversity” form with any communication to a college or university educator. I patiently explain how much I treasure diversity; but due to the inclusion of people who would not meet my own standards (not mentioning race or gender), I need to know how much to dumb down the communication.

    Mind you, prior to around 1980 I met far more privileged but dumb white suburban (former) kids, who got where they were via connections, than A.A. minorities. All that has changed in recent decades. It especially changed when a black man, son of a Ph.D. who had gone to daddy’s private college, told me that I (child of school dropouts) had gotten where I was via a “white old boy network.”

    Coming from a socioeconomically disadvantaged (as defined in my own state) background myself, I once pointed out that certain college programs intended to benefit students (of any race) who were the first in their families to attend college, were far more worthy of funding than (say) upgrading a planetarium to a fancier entertainment venue. But this advice was disregarded from the dumb faculty (of all races and genders) who had grown up in the suburbs. They went to schools that had the dough. I should point out that lately, on its web site, the college is crying that it is using duct tape to hold together the wiring in its computer lab. I sent them a roll.

  7. Robert A. August 5, 2004 at 5:25 pm | | Reply

    Afterthought: U. of M.’s Julie Peterson is right about seeing “similarities across racial boundaries.” From my perspective, the dumb suburban white kids who get in via connections are just the same as the dumb suburban black kids who get in via connections.

  8. dragongrrl March 15, 2005 at 9:54 pm | | Reply

    jeez, shouldn’t you folks learn at least some facts before you go spouting off such racist bullshit? Merit, please define merit for me. Also please look up the statistics on who has benefitted the most from affirmative action programs (white women).

    Answer me this if you will, why do whites applying to michigan have an average score of 1200 on SAT and blacks 860? There are only two ways to explain that (complicated ways) 1. is to say black folks are dumber and lazier than white folks. Well, we know that isn’t a fact — we have science on our side, and we have too many examples of brilliant, smart, and talented people of color. so, 2. maybe, just maybe, it’s due to discrimination in housing, which determines which neighborhoods you grow up in, which determines what kind of primary school education you get. Maybe due to hiring practices which have discriminated against people of color, it is hard for a father and a mother to find work. Maybe that is tough, maybe some fathers disappear. Maybe you hear all your life that blacks are to blame for nearly everything wrong with society. And then maybe you start believing in it. But really, there are lots of studies and statistics out there. educate yourself and then talk to me about merit.

  9. [...] selective institutions like Michigan amounts to using blacks for the benefit of whites”). And here (“… racial preferences are primarily for the benefit of whites, who, so the argument [...]

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