Confusion Ethics and Deceptive Data

But now, perhaps sensing that going to bat for so-called white victims might not play as well in the court of public opinion, those seeking to dismantle affirmative action have seized on a new approach: claiming that Asian Americans are being harmed by such efforts because they are held to a much higher standard for admission than black and Latinx applicants. It is this claim that animates the latest affirmative action lawsuit, this time against Harvard, brought by the same folks who graced the courts with the pathetic mess that was the Fisher case.

But as with the previous cases involving supposed white victims, the claims being made about unfairness to Asian Americans are also specious. In the interest of space, I’ll provide the short version below, but for a more detailed critique of these claims, check out the Reappropriate blog, operated by Jenn Fang, whose work on these and similar issues is among the best.

It was in 2010 that conservatives fixed on data presented in a book by Princeton scholars Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford, which the former claimed as proof of how unfair affirmative action was to Asian Americans, even though the authors themselves never made that argument. And it is material like this, distorted by critics of affirmative action, which animates the claims in the Harvard case.

So let’s examine the facts.

According to data from the nation’s most highly selective schools, it is true that Asian Americans have much lower odds of admission than black and Latinx students. Interestingly, they also are only a third as likely to be admitted as whites at the same level of qualifications, though the right never seems to mention that, and for reasons not too difficult to discern.

By comparison to black and Latinx applicants though, the differences are certainly stark. When we compare admissions odds, for instance, black students who score 1100 on the SAT are just as likely to get in to elite schools as Asian Americans who score a near-perfect 1550.

Taken at face value, numbers like this appear to suggest that African American students are indeed being held to a much lower standard of excellence, resulting in unfair preferences for blacks and unfair discrimination against Asians.

But in truth, things are nowhere near that simple. In fact, the scholars whose book first presented that data have said so themselves. As Espenshade and Radford explain:

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…in our judgment it is more likely 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…perhaps having overcome disadvantage…or experiencing challenging family or schooling circumstances…If we were able to include these other considerations in our models we believe the effect of being black or Hispanic per se would be diminished.

Indeed, other data presented by Espenshade and Radford suggest exactly this: that black and Latinx students are seen by admissions officers as equal to their white and Asian counterparts, even when they have lower scores and grades, because of background disadvantages against which they were operating. In short, what appears to be a blatant racial preference is really a preference for demonstrating perseverance and “overcomer” tendencies in the face of disproportionate obstacles.

For instance, two-thirds of all blacks in highly selective schools come from families with less than $50,000 in annual income (twice the rate for whites in those schools), and 60 percent come from families with less than $25,000 in net assets (whereas half of whites and Asians come from families with over $200,000 in net assets).

Nearly 40 percent of black applicants to elite institutions come from low-achieving high schools (twice the rate for whites and four times the rate for Asian Americans), and the typical black applicant attended a school with twice as many low-income classmates as their white or Asian counterparts. Furthermore, black and Latinx applicants are five times as likely as white applicants, and more than 2.5 times as likely as Asian applicants, to be poor.

Given the substantial disadvantages faced by black and Latinx students, relative to their white and Asian counterparts, it’s not surprising that they may be admitted at lower levels of presumed academic merit. After all, to score an 1100 on the SAT despite facing substantial obstacles may rightly be considered more impressive than scoring 1400 having had a plethora of class advantages.

So too, for black students to score well on standardized tests — even if not as high as some white and Asian students — given the radically different backgrounds from which those black applicants so often come, suggests they are probably more qualified than the more advantaged applicants. It would be the equivalent of starting a race three laps behind another runner and ending the race, so to speak, only a lap behind. In that case the one who narrowed the gap was the faster (and better) runner. But conservatives would have schools reward the one who hits the tape first, so to speak, even if they only did so because of a head start they had not earned.

Even more importantly, using relative admissions odds for different racial groups as a way to demonstrate the existence of racial discrimination is an inherently flawed method of analysis.

When the pool of applicants in a given cohort is relatively small (as it is for black students with high test scores), to admit even a small number of these will skew their admissions odds upward relative to other groups where the cohort of highly qualified applicants is higher, and class size limitations require admissions officers to be more discerning. But this says nothing about whether any given applicant was unfairly favored or held back. It merely speaks to the effects of sample size.

Consider an analogous situation to prove the point: namely, admissions odds by geography.

So, according to the Espenshade and Radford data, applicants from states like Utah, Alabama, West Virginia and Montana have a huge advantage in admissions due to the desire of elite colleges for geographic diversity. In fact, an applicant to an elite school from Utah whose qualifications are equal to someone from California is 45 times more likely than the California applicant to be admitted: an admissions advantage that is nine times larger than the boost for African Americans relative to whites, and also much larger than the black boost relative to Asian Americans.

Certainly this doesn’t happen because of any pro-Utah bias or discrimination against Californians. Rather, it is because elite schools receive lots of applications from qualified Californians — it’s a big state, with lots of such students to choose from — and far fewer from states like Utah. As such, the latter will have better odds of admission, even though they will end up being a very small number of the students at any given elite school. And any Californian who seized upon this data to suggest that the reason they didn’t get into Yale was because of some unfair preference for Mormon kids from Provo would be an idiot, whose mathematical incompetence alone on that score should disqualify them from acceptance.

As with the geographic case, so too because white and Asian students are more likely than black and Latinx students to apply to elite schools and to meet the standards typically set for those schools, any given black or Latinx kid who does apply will probably have better odds of acceptance. But that doesn’t translate into these students being the reason whites or Asians didn’t get in. After all, the combined numbers of black and Latinx students at these schools, typically, amounts to about 14 percent of all students.

While colleges should make sure to disaggregate among Asian Americans, so as to recognize the economic barriers that some such as Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Lao and Hmong students in particular continue to face — and while they might do well to add such persons to their affirmative action efforts, given their underrepresentation in elite schools — there is no good reason to end those efforts for black and Latinx students. And especially not on the basis of the dubious data presented by those attacking schools like Harvard.

As they have for forty-plus years, with their most recent legal efforts the right again demonstrates a willingness to distort the facts in order to eradicate even the most basic efforts to achieve racial equity. Although black and Latinx students combined only represent about 1 in 7 students at the nation’s most selective schools, these folks would have us believe that they are the reason white kids (and now Asian American ones) didn’t get into their first-choice school. It would be funny were it not so pathetic, so calculated to turn groups of color against one another, and so damaging to efforts to create a truly multiracial democracy.

. . .

*Sources for information on the Bakke and Gratz cases — and additional information on these and other cases — can be found in the footnotes to my 2005 book, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (NY: Routledge)

I tweet and Facebook. My podcast, Speak Out With Tim Wise, is available on iTunes and Google Play, and I post bonus audio commentaries and content at my Patreon page. Speaking engagements are booked through Speak Out: the nation’s premier non-profit speaker’s bureau.

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