Race Preferences: How Many Benefit, How Many Are Burdened?

[WARNING! This is a long post — possibly requiring multiple sittings, definitely requiring either great interest or dedication, or both]

Two days ago I asked, here, “Will The Sky Fall If Preferential Admissions End?” and answered “No,” based on a new study discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That study found that if racial preferences in college admissions were ended, the numbers of blacks and Hispanics at selective institutions

would decline by about 10 percent, from 3.04 percent of enrollment to 2.73 percent. The total number of black and Hispanic students enrolled at all four-year colleges would drop by about 2 percent.

“In short,” I concluded,

in order to prevent the percentage of black and Hispanic students at the nation’s most selective colleges from declining from 3.04 percent of enrollment to 2.73 percent, we have abandoned the formerly fundamental principle that everyone should be treated without regard to race and instituted a nationwide system of distributing benefits and burdens based on race.

What a deal.

Left undiscussed, however, was how much discrimination against whites and Asians is necessary in order to increase the presence of black and Hispanics on campus from 2.73% to 3.04%. I’ll address that question in some detail below.

Also two days ago Robert VerBruggen of National Review Online’s phi beta cons blog commented on that same study, quoting from a long, excellent review he wrote about six weeks ago of the recent book by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal. (I have discussed Espenshade’s work a number of times, such as here, here, and here.)

You should read VerBruggen’s entire review, since I’m not going to quote all of it, but I do want to appropriate his concise presentation of some important data in the Espenshade study of admissions at eight anonymous elite colleges in the National Study of College Experience data set, such as the following:

After academic performance and demographic factors have been taken into account, black applicants are more than five times as likely as whites to be accepted at NSCE private schools, and 220 times as likely to be accepted at NSCE public schools. Asian applicants, meanwhile, are only about a third as likely as whites to get big envelopes from private institutions, and one-fifth as likely to gain admission to public ones.

Putting preferences in terms of test scores, at private schools, blacks get an advantage, compared to whites, worth 310 SAT points (out of 1600), Hispanics an advantage of 130, and Asians a disadvantage of 140….

If NSCE private schools eliminated both the black/Hispanic advantage and the Asian disadvantage, blacks would go from 8 to 3 percent of these colleges’ admittances, Hispanics from 8 to 5 percent, whites from 60 to 53 percent, and Asians from 24 to 39 percent.

In short, Espenshade’s data make it clear that the institutions he reviewed engage in massive discrimination against Asians in order to boost the numbers of blacks and Hispanics. Or rather, that is clear to everyone except, apparently, Espenshade and his co-author, as discussed by VerBruggen in his review:

But the authors resist this conclusion. Espenshade told an interviewer for the Inside Higher Ed website that he doesn’t have “smoking gun” evidence that Asians are discriminated against, claiming that factors he wasn’t able to include in his analysis — letters of recommendation, etc. — might have been so much worse for Asians that they explained the gap. [So, college admissions officers did not discriminate against Asians, but those students’ high school teachers did? — jsr] The book makes a similar argument about blacks and Hispanics, going so far as to bust out the old tie-breaker meme in this jawdroppingly absurd passage:

It would be a mistake to interpret the data . . . as meaning that elite college admissions officers are necessarily giving extra weight to black and Hispanic candidates just because they belong to underrepresented minority groups. This may occur from time to time, especially in situations where two applicants are otherwise equally well qualified. But in our judgment, it is more likely that a proper assessment of these data is that the labels “black” and “Hispanic” are proxies for a constellation of other factors in a candidate’s application folder that we do not observe. These unobserved qualities — perhaps having overcome disadvantage and limited opportunities or experiencing challenging family or schooling circumstances — may be positively correlated with the chances of being admitted when a holistic review of an applicant’s total materials is conducted.

In the very same chapter, however, the authors mention “the black advantage” and refer to the disparities as “weight” and “preference.” They also note that at NSCE private institutions, students who are minority and poor get a sizable boost, whereas students who are white and poor actually get penalized — that’s how much admissions officers care about helping those who have “overcome disadvantage,” as opposed to engineering their schools’ racial balance.

As I discussed in More On Asians As The “New Jews,” others, such as Christopher Shea writing in the Boston Globe, have noticed the disjunction between Espenshade’s data and his reluctance to follow it where it leads. From my post, quoting Shea:

Espenshade declined to answer questions about the study, saying via e-mail that he only wished to state “the obvious: academic merit is not the only kind of merit that elite college admission officers consider in making admission decisions.”

Although on one level this statement is obviously true, on another it’s quite inane, since it is not at all obvious that legacy status or skin color is any “kind of merit” at all.

So, how much racial discrimination — in favor of some, against others — is inherent in racial preference university admissions? Although Espenshade’s data provide some clues — black admissions declining from 8% to 3%, Asian admissions increasing from 24% to 39%, etc. — those percentages somehow sanitize and even disguise the numbers, the costs and benefits to actual individuals. I want to discuss this question, again, in some detail, but first let me dispense, again, with the ubiquitous canard that there is no discrimination because whites, as a group, are not seriously injured.

I’ve criticized this view several times, such as here where I discussed this view as presented in this atrocious piece by Elise Boddie, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney. “At the most selective institutions,” Ms. Boddie wrote,

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.

“This argument,” and an identical one by Theodore Shaw, then the general counsel of NAACP-LDF, I replied in my post,

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?

By now they’ve long gone there, but this argument, I pointed out, is not limited to the NAACP, and I quoted the following from a Q&A re University of Michigan Admissions Policies, which had been on a University of Michigan web site but was subsequently “revised” and “archived” somewhere.

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,” I emphasized,

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.”

O.K., but what about actual numbers of students admitted or excluded because of their race? To make this concrete, let’s look at one institution, the University of Michigan, in part because the data was made available during the litigation over preferences there. I’ve discussed the following data several times (here, here, here, here, and here, but unless I’ve missed some posts I haven’t reprised those numbers since 2006, and thus it seems appropriate for me to introduce this data to new readers and to remind you veterans of it. What follows is lifted from those earlier posts, but this is not plagiarism, even though I’m not going to link each lift, because I’ve generously given myself permission to quote freely from them without specific attribution.

Let’s look first at the University of Michigan law school. In order to determine how much actual discrimination was involved, here are 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?

The following is from page 28 of Judge Bernard Friedman’s district court opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger. 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

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.

  1. 170 “underrepresented minorities” were preferentially offered admission.
  2. 58 of them enrolled, making up 14.5% of the total entering class of 400 students.
  3. 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 rejected because of their race or ethnicity that year. The 2000 entering class of 400 students contained 42 minority 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.

In short, 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, in one year 124 whites, Asians, etc., who would have been offered admission to the law school 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 race-based admits.

Now let’s turn to undergraduate admissions at Michigan. 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, Vol. 46, No. 5, June 1999 (quoted here).] Recall that 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. ) Thus, 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 rejected 300 white applicants a year based exclusively on their race.

That estimate is probably far too low. Since this post is so long, let me remind you of evidence the University of Michigan presented in court, cited and linked above, that

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

and Judge Friedman’s comment on data from Dr. Raudenbusch, the Michigan expert, that in the year 2000

35% of underrepresented minority applicants and 40% of non-minority applicants were admitted…. 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.

Keep those numbers in mind, since what Michigan’s expert testified here is that eliminating racial preferences in admissions would increase the acceptance rate of non-minority applicants by 4%.

Using Michigan’s figures, 22,200 applications that year came from non-minorities. Thus, if Dr. Raudenbush’s conclusion that the admission rate of non-minorities would increase by 4% in the absence of race preferences is also true for undergraduate applicants, that means that in one year Michigan rejected 888 applicants to its College of Literature, Science & the Arts solely because of their race. (40% of 22,200 = 8,880. 44% of 22,200 = 9,760.) Actually, in real life the number in subsequent years would be higher because the number of applicants increased after 2000.

The data is similar at other institutions. Just to pick one example: In 1998 10,297 Asian-American applicants applied to Berkeley, 11,479 applied to UCLA, and 7,152 — 32.8% of them — were admitted. If Espenshade is correct in arguing that eliminating racial preferences would result in Asian-American acceptances increasing by 5%, then if racial preferences had been in effect in1998, which according to Espenshade would have dropped the admit rates to 27.8%, Berkeley and UCLA together would have rejected 1098 Asian-American applicants that year solely because of their race. (This calculation assumes, perhaps counter-factually, that Berkeley and UCLA scrupulously adhered that year to Prop. 209’s prohibition of racial preferences in admissions.)

So far as I know, no one has calculated what is surely the staggering number of victims of racial discrimination across the nation resulting from racial preferences in college and university admissions over the past generation. But one thing is clear — the preference pushers and their allies are absolutely right about one deeply disturbing truth: racial discrimination in American society is pervasive, structural, systemic, and continuing. It goes by the name of “affirmative action.”

UPDATE [14 January]

Thanks to Robert VerBruggen, and welcome to readers of his phi beta cons blog on National Review Online.

UPDATE II [14 January]

Thanks also to George Leef and Roger Clegg for their kind comments, both also on the fine phi beta cons blog. Roger’s post reminds me of important data I should have mentioned in my post:

Let me add that the Center for Equal Opportunity’s studies typically estimate the number of students who have been discriminated against by racially preferential admission policies. For example, in our study of the University of Michigan that we released in 2008 (in the run-up to the vote on the anti-preference ballot initiative in that state), we pointed out that, over the four years we analyzed, over 8,000 non-African Americans were denied admission despite having higher SAT or ACT scores and high-school GPAs than the median black undergraduate admittee (the figure, mutatis mutandis, was 4,415 for the law school and 11,647 for the medical school). Our studies can be read here.

Say What?