In a comment to this post below, “Cobra,” a frequent commenter here, challenged me to support my assertion in the post that although eliminating racial preferences would not eliminate all racial discrimination it “would eliminate quite a lot” of it.
“Easy,” I replied.
As practiced almost everywhere “affirmative action” is employed, preferences are given to some individuals and not to others based on their race. That is racial discrimination. Eliminating those racial preference programs would thus, as I argued, “eliminate quite a lot” of racial discrimination.
Cobra, in turn, responded in effect that the amount of discrimination produced by racial preferences is relatively trivial, not worth getting hot under the collar about:
… as far as elite college admissions go (the hill on which most anti-affirmative action types choose to charge up) only 2% to 5% of total admissions are affected by Affirmative Action at all. In the case of hiring, promotion and government contracting, you see similar, if not smaller percentages.
I’ve written about this misconception several times before, but since Cobra is not alone in being mistaken about this I think it’s worth addressing again, pulling together in this post some items I’ve mentioned in different places before. (Can one plagiarize oneself? If so, I’m doing it here because I’m not going to quote/link myself here each time I say something I’ve said before, but most of what follows is drawn from here, here, and here.)
First, although some are in denial, there really can be no reasonable disagreement with the fact that selective schools with preferences admit minorities with lower qualifications than non-minority applicants. Indeed, most schools, although uncomfortable admitting it, usually do not not deny what they do when pressed (at least when a perjury indictment might be the reward for denying it). Thus, just to pick one example from the University of Michigan, the following exchange with a law school admissions dean took place in Barbara Grutter’s district court trial, as quoted in her appeal brief to the Sixth Circuit:
Q. And in order to achieve that critical mass of minority students the practice was and the policy called for, a willingness to admit minority students from generally lower academic qualifications [than] majority students, isn’t that a fair statement?
A. [Dennis Shields]: I think that’s a fair statement. [pdf page 47]
Michigan, of course, is typical, not unique. Sometimes, in fact, the preferences can be even more dramatic at less selective schools. As I discussed here, Prof. Robert Heidt, a member for several years of the admissions committee at the Indiana University (Bloomington) law school, wrote the following in an OpEd in the Indianapolis Star [Note: this article seems to have disappeared from the Indianapolis Star archive. I quoted it here]:
… we regularly lower our usual standards of admission more than our counterparts at Michigan lower theirs…. We follow a similarly heavy-handed affirmative action policy for financial aid and faculty recruitment.
A policy however well-meaning in the abstract can feel foul to those given the job of implementing it. And in my four years on the admissions committee, routinely leapfrogging minority applicants over so many dramatically more qualified non-minority applicants, foul is how our affirmative action policy came to feel. Seeing the photographs and reading the record and personal statements of non-minority applicants whom we rejected in order to admit the far less qualified left me feeling as though I should wash. Eventually, I could not acquiesce in this policy any longer….
Roughly speaking, to meet our de facto quotas, we must leapfrog less qualified minority applicants over approximately 330 more qualified non-minority applicants each year, many of whom, of course, will be Indiana residents.
Even schools that deny giving great weight to race in admissions frequently do so, and the numbers they sometimes release often make a mockery of the denials. At Michigan State, for example, as related here, several years ago officials said that race “was not key” in admissions. Really? Consider:
EAST LANSING – MSU officials say they don’t use race as a factor in deciding who to admit — opting instead to recruit and assist disadvantaged and predominately [sic] minority students.
While Michigan State University doesn’t use racial preferences or quotas, it offers a program that lowers the bar for some undergraduate students who show initiative in the classroom.
MSU accepts students with grade-point averages as low as 2.5 on a 4.0 scale under the College Academic Achievement Program. The average incoming freshman has a 3.5.
About 460 students were enrolled this fall through the program, 88 percent of them minorities. Once admitted, MSU offers students academic help.
“We consider a wide range of factors in choosing students and we look at a broad range of experiences,” Pamela Horne, MSU director of admissions, said Monday.
In other words, of all the students who applied to Michigan State that year whose GPA was too low for admission, 88% who were deemed to have shown sufficient “initiative in the classroom” to qualify them for admission anyway were minorities. It seems statistically, er, unlikely that 88% of all the underperforming but otherwise deserving applicants with other “experiences” or “factors” that made them admission-worthy would be minority without a heavy racial thumb on the scale.
One common argument that preferentialists make is that racial preferences do not involve discrimination because most whites, Asians, etc., who are rejected from selective schools are not rejected because of race. Typical is the following argument (which I criticized here) made by an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney:
At the most selective institutions, the elimination of affirmative action would have an acute impact on the admissions of African-Americans and Latinos but would likely increase the chances of white admissions by just 1.5 percent. In other words, although there is a widespread perception that masses of white students are losing their seats because of affirmative action, in reality, race-conscious policies have a negligible impact on whites. As a matter of basic math, affirmative action cannot begin to account for the number of unsuccessful white candidates, because the sum of minority students admitted under race-conscious policies is dramatically less than the number of white candidates denied admission….
Yet opponents still equate affirmative action policies with “discrimination against whites” and draw audacious parallels between such policies and the racist practices of universities during the era of de jure segregation. The University of Michigan is at least 80 percent white, so it isn’t credible to claim that it or its affirmative action policy discriminates against whites as a group.
Perhaps it is easier to attack the minuscule number of minority students admitted than to accept rejection. In most cases it is the end result of intense competition for limited slots (at the University of Michigan, more than 25,000 applicants seek about 5,000 freshman slots)….
This argument, a foundation of the preference principle, has far more radical implications than is generally recognized, for it in effect redefines discrimination as something that applies only to groups. To say that preferences cannot be discriminatory because the University of Michigan is still 80% white is to say that discrimination against individuals doesn’t count, until and unless it is massive enough to affect the statistical representation of the racial or ethnic group to which they are said to belong. Do “civil rights” groups really want to go there?
Forget civil rights groups. The University of Michigan itself makes this same argument. The following is from a Q&A re University of Michigan Admissions Policies on a Michigan web site with its legal materials. [At least it was there, when I discussed it here and here. Now it has apparently been “revised” and “archived.”]
Q: Does the University’s consideration of race hurt a white student’s chances of getting into the University?
A: No. The numbers of minority applicants are extremely small compared to the numbers of white students who apply to the University. The Law School, for example has for the last 10 years had an average offer rate of 29 percent for Caucasian applicants, and 26 percent for African American applicants. Out of the fall 2002 entering class of 352, only 21 are African American. Similarly, of the approximately 24,000 applications received each year for admissions to the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, only about 1,800 come from underrepresented minorities. It is not mathematically possible that the small numbers of minority students who apply and are admitted are “displacing” a significant number of white students under any scenario.
William Bowen and Derek Bok, in their book “The Shape of the River,” look at the nationwide statistics concerning admissions to selective universities. They determined that even if all selective universities used a race-blind admissions system, the probability of being admitted for a white student would go only from 25 percent to 26.2 percent.
What Michigan, and Bowen and Bok, are actually saying here is that there is no discrimination because there’s not much of it, and what there is affects only some individuals, not their groups. Their argument is that discrimination against individuals doesn’t count. The only discrimination that matters, that is in effect even worthy of being called discrimination, is against “groups” — and even then, only if its impact is severe enough to make a group “underrepresented.”
In order to determine how much actual discrimination is involved at Michigan, let’s look at some revealing numbers that Michigan itself provided in court about the 2000 class at its law school. How many applicants does Michigan itself say were admitted, and rejected, because of their race that year? (I picked that year because I found the numbers without having to look very hard.)
The following is from page 28 of Judge Bernard Friedman’s district court opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, the law school case. It discusses data on the effect of preferences presented by Dr. Stephen Raudenbush, the University of Michigan’s expert witness.
In Dr. Raudenbush’s view, a “race-blind” admissions system would have a “very dramatic,” negative effect on minority admissions but only a slight effect on non-minority admissions, due to the vastly greater number of non-minority applicants. In the year 2000, 35% of underrepresented minority applicants and 40% of non-minority applicants were admitted. See Exhibit 187. Dr. Raudenbush predicted that if race were not considered, then only 10% of underrepresented minority applicants and 44% of non-minority applicants would be admitted. If correct, this would mean that in the year 2000 only 46 underrepresented minority applicants would have been admitted (instead of 170 who actually were admitted), of whom only 16 would enroll (instead of 58 who actually enrolled). Under this scenario, underrepresented minority students would have constituted 4% of the entering class in 2000, instead of 14.5% as actually occurred. See Exhibit 189.
Here’s what I take out of the above. Keep in mind that these are the numbers presented by Michigan’s own expert, not by the plaintiffs.
- 170 “underrepresented minorities” were offered admission.
- 58 of them enrolled, making up 14.5% of the total entering class of 400 students.
- Under “race-blind” admissions, 46 minorities would have been offered admission and 16 of them, 4% of the entering class, would have enrolled.
Thus, according to Michigan, 124 white, Asian, or unpreferred minority applicants were prevented from attending the UM law school in one year because of their race or ethnicity. The 2000 entering class of 400 students contained 42 students, or a bit over 10% of the class, who in Michigan’s estimation would not have been there if their race or ethnicity had not been taken into account. [The remainder of this paragraph added 2 April] 27% of the “underrepresented minorities” who applied would have been accepted under a non-discriminatory, colorblind admissions system; 73% of those who were offered admission would not have been admitted without the racial preference they were given. Thus, 124 whites, Asians, etc., who would have been admitted under a race-blind admissions system were denied admission in order to produce a yield of 42 more “underrepresented minority” admits than a race-blind system would have produced, or about three race-based denials for every one of the preferentially admitted entering students.
Now, given the large number of white, Asian, and non-preferred minority (not simply “white,” as Michigan’s statement has it) applicants and the relatively small number of preferred minority applicants, it may well be true that any non-preferred individual’s chances of admissions were not dramatically affected by Michigan’s preferences to preferred minorities. But does that mean that those 124 applicants who were rejected because of their race were not victims of discrimination? Would they have been victims if there had been 150 of them? 200? 250? If, say, 124 students are excluded from attending the University of Michigan law school every year, and similar numbers are excluded from similar schools because of their race, is that “much” discrimination or not?
In fact, as I will argue in a moment, the question of how many whites are kept out of schools by preferentially admitted minorities, while an interesting question, is not the question to ask in order to determine how much discrimination is occurring. But for now let’s stick to the numbers.
Go back and look at the Bowen and Bok numbers quoted above. [But before you accept these numbers as accurate, you should read the long critique by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in the UCLA Law Review, June 1999, and a shorter summary here.] According to Bowen & Bok, “a white student” has a 25% probability of being admitted to a selective college under the current regime of race preferences, but under a “race-blind” system that probability would increase “only” to 26.2%. But what if one also considers Asians and other non-preferred minorities? B&B don’t say. In any event, based on their numbers, for every thousand applicants to a selective college, 12 whites (Asians, etc., still invisible) are rejected only because of their race or ethnicity. Applying those numbers to Michigan’s 25,000 applicants every year to its freshman class, Michigan rejects 300 white applicants a year based exclusively on their race.
Of course there are probabilities, and then there are probabilities. Here’s another way to look at the probability of being admitted as a freshman to the University of Michigan. The Center for Equal Opportunity studied admissions figures for a number of schools, including the University of Michigan. As described by CEO president at the time, Linda Chavez (quoted here), when CEO studied the figures from Michigan
we discovered that the median SAT scores for black students who were admitted to the school were 230 points lower than for whites. What’s more, their high school grades lagged nearly a half point (on a four-point scale) behind those of whites. From the data we obtained under a Freedom of Information request, we calculated that the odds of being admitted if you were a black student with the same qualifications [grades and test scores] as a white applicant were 174-to-1.
Be that as it it may, what does one make of the estimate that 300 white students were excluded from the freshman class at Michigan in one year because of their race? Is that number large or small? Do those 300 students (or however many it is in real life) not have a valid claim of racial discrimination simply because they are a small percentage (1.2% according to B&B) of the total applicant pool? (Of course, they are a larger percentage of the white/Asian/non-preferred minority pool, but that’s getting down into the fine print.) If selective colleges began “taking religion into account,” as logically they must if they believe what they say about diversity, and 300 students were excluded because they were Jewish, would the American Jewish Committee still file a brief supporting Michigan, or would it say, with B&B and Michigan, that, oh well, it’s “only” 300?
As I’ve indicated, however, the question of how many whites (or Asians or other non-preferred minorities) are kept out of selective universities because of their race is interesting, but that is not the measure of how much discrimination results from those preferences. To see why, note again the observation of Indiana University law professor Robert Heidt quoted above (which I’ll quote again):
Roughly speaking, to meet our de facto quotas, we must leapfrog less qualified minority applicants over approximately 330 more qualified non-minority applicants each year….
Prof. Heidt did not say how many lesser qualified minority students were leapfrogged over more qualified applicants, but I’m sure it was a relatively small number. So, just to pick a number out of a hat, let’s say it was 25. In the view of the NAACP LDF and the University of Michigan and Bowen & Bok, and indeed most other preferentialists, since “only” 25 applicants were kept out of Indiana University that year because of their race, there really wasn’t very much discrimination at all.
But that’s wrong. All 330 of the better qualified applicants whose chances for admission were diminished because of their race suffered racial discrimination that year, even though not all 330 would have been admitted in the absence of racial preferences.
In order to see why this is true, we need to draw what Elise Boddie, the NAACP LDF attorney quoted above, ridiculed as “audacious parallels between [racial preferences] and the racist practices of universities during the era of de jure segregation.” Let us hypothesize that 330 blacks applied to the University of Alabama law school during the era of segregation and that, of course, they were all rejected. Now let us also assume, quite reasonably, that if there had been no segregation or racial discrimination of any kind, only 25 of them would have been accepted. Would that mean that the 305 who would not have been admitted even without discrimination did not have a valid claim to having suffered racial discrimination? Of course not.
As it happens, the number of whites and unpreferred minorities who are kept out of selective institutions because of their race is, as we’ve seen, quite substantial, but the numbers who suffer discrimination that results from employing racial preferences is far greater.