Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Three Myths of Reverse Racism in College Admissions

Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the tiny teacher's room of the little parochial school where I taught, talking to a few other people about the news. The principal's administrative assistant said something about affirmative action letting unqualified black students into Harvard, and I asked her if she thought that was a real worry. She actually gasped. "Don't you?" she asked, in shocked disbelief that I could not be concerned, nay scandalized, about such a well-known social problem.

But I had just graduated from Harvard the year before, and I had never seen these unqualified African-American students that everyone was always talking about. Was Harvard secretly running another secret campus, where they hid all these unqualified minority students people kept mentioning? Or, if the people I had met in college were the supposedly unqualified minority students, why had they kept kicking my ass in chess? It made no sense.

Where I'd gone to college didn't make any difference to my co-worker, who knew what she knew. After all, everybody knew it. The Unqualified Black Harvard Student was a truth universally acknowledged, something everyone accepted as a proven fact, at least among white people who had never been to Harvard.

Now it seems the Trump-and-Sessions Justice Department is planning to investigate American colleges and universities for their alleged racist crimes against white applicants. So the Myth of the Unqualified Minority College Student is going to get official government backing, reality be damned.

This changes the game from the past decades of anti-affirmative lawsuits, which have been brought by private individuals and have traditionally had a plaintiff problem, in that the applicants suing whatever school always turn out to be marginal candidates at best. We can call this the Myth of the Wronged White Genius, a necessary companion to the Myth of the Unqualified Minority. The implication is that there are a number of brilliant white students, who would obviously be accepted immediately into whatever school they apply to except that they have been done wrong by by those Unqualified Minorities. Everyone knows about these people, too: unmistakable stars who would be open-and-shut, slam-dunk admissions cases. But somehow when it's time to sue a college these applicants, the Wronged White Superstars, never show up.

Instead, the plaintiffs in affirmative action lawsuits are people who either would, at best, squeak in at the bottom of an admitted class (as in the case of Allen Bakke) or, as in the absurd case of Abigail Fisher, a student whose own lawyers had to admit she would not get into the university of her choice even if race were not an issue. Bakke v. California did eliminate quotas; UC Davis Medical School was setting aside 16 of its 100 med-school berths for minority applicants, in a system not terribly different from set-asides schools had reserved for veterans and other favored categories. So even in Bakke's best case for his argument he would be, at the very best, in the bottom 16% of the entering class.

Now, we have only Allen Bakke's own word that he would have gotten in if not for those 16 slots. He was convinced this was true. But even so, that makes Bakke at the very best 85th out of a hundred. And Bakke would only be 85th if  every single minority applicant were less qualified than Bakke on paper, an assertion with neither facts nor probability on its side. So the heart of Bakke's own claim is that, by his own lights, he should be in the bottom tier of admitted applicants, the 90-something best applicant out of 100.

Plaintiffs like Bakke (or Grutter, or Gratz) tend to be bubble applicants. Anti-affirmative-action lawsuits, by their basic logic, are about contesting the last slot admitted to a particular program. The argument is, and has to be, that the plaintiff has been done wrong by offering any affirmative action, because the affirmative action applicants booted the plaintiff out of that last available space. So the plaintiff is by definition someone whose best realistic hope was just barely to squeeze under the wire.

That means even the best anti-affirmative-action plaintiff is someone who might or might not get into a school or program any given year, depending on who else applied. The 96th-best applicant one year might be the 106th-best next year, because every year a different batch of people apply. And we should add that rankings like this don't work out transparently, so that one admissions officer might rank an applicant the 95th best and another admissions officer, equally qualified and equally well-intentioned, might rank the same person 105th.

The argument isn't just "If not for affirmative action, I would have gotten into medical school." It is, and has to be, "If not for affirmative action I would have just barely made it into medical school." That's not the world's most rousing chorus.

Lately, anti-affirmative action groups have tried to resort to finding Asian-American plaintiffs, as in this recent piece from the New York Times. Of course, the NYT piece leads off with an apparently very qualified student who is not actually suing Harvard, as the NYT only admits near the bottom of its story. The Times also mysteriously fails to mention that this is not the first time Harvard has been sued over accusations that it should admit more Asian-Americans; we actually know a good deal about Harvard's admissions processes because of discovery from that previous lawsuit. Oh, and Harvard won that earlier lawsuit about this issue, so that might have been something the Times story mentioned, too.

But in any case, the Asian-American-plaintiff gambit doesn't really advance the case that affirmative action is discrimination against whites. The heart of that argument is that colleges are allegedly depressing the number of Asian-American students, and that someplace like Harvard should be 40% Asian-American instead of a mere 20 to 25%. That would lead to fewer white students, not more. This argument is basically that so-called liberal schools are already discriminating in favor of white applicants.

Now, the new Department of Justice is going to go for the gusto and claim anti-white discrimination. This may get around the problem of white plaintiffs with mediocre test scores by making the federal government itself the plaintiff and rendering all of the issues more abstract. Instead of arguing in court for a real but not-overwhelmingly-qualified white person, they can make the case about the imaginary wrongs done to all white people and bring the strictly imaginary Wronged White Geniuses, who would be academic stars if not for those pesky minorities, back into the conversation.

The strongest anti-affirmative-action cases have been against public universities, which are arms of the government. The case that an outside party can dictate the policies of a private university, like Harvard or Yale or your local small liberal-arts college, is a lot murkier. Also, anti-affirmative-action suits have generally, although not always, done better in cases of law or medical school applications instead of undergraduate admissions. This is because professional schools look at a smaller and more quantifiable set of qualifications and leave out murky questions like "character" and "promise."

That brings us to the third big anti-affirmative action myth, the Myth of the Clear Ranked Order. This is the assumption that every stack of college or grad-school applications can clearly be sorted in order of quality, from #1 to #103 to #19,346. But it never works like that. No healthy college admissions pool is going to have an applicant who is clearly and unambiguously better than everyone else in the pool. (That would be a sign that your school is getting an application from a student it usually couldn't land, so you're probably having recruiting trouble already.) And there's never, ever a clear line demarcating the last applicant who gets in from the first applicant who doesn't. That's always a judgment call, and another committee another year might swap around who just made it and who just missed.

The more accurate way to think about applicants is in groupings. There's a group you'd be very happy to have, another group that will clearly get in. There's also a group, which you'd always like to be small, of people who have no hope at all of getting in, and a group of people who are okay but who you are clearly not going to find the space for considering who else is in the pool. But these groupings will never coincide perfectly with the number of spaces available. If you have 100 spaces, or 2000 spaces, or 4000 spaces, you are never going to get exactly 100 or 2000 or 4000 applications from people you obviously want to admit and then a sharp drop off to much less qualified people. There will always be a batch of people who might have made it in and might not have.

This is most obviously true when schools are looking like character, leadership, originality, and so forth, and when they are judging things like extracurricular activities, letters or recommendation, and personal essays. Those things have to be judged qualitatively. Are all those clubs the student is in just resume-padding, or is there something real and interesting going on? In the school orchestra because you think colleges would like that, or because you're really interested in music? That has to be a judgment call, but every admissions office also has to make it.

But this is also true of academic qualifications. If selective colleges reduced everything to a question of GPAs and scores, they would not be happy with who they got. They would believe that they'd let in some people who weren't actually as smart as many of the people they turned away. (There are colleges, of course, where it is just about grades and scores, but those are schools who aren't finding enough students they want at all; they are simply screening out people who are likely to flunk, and taking everyone else.) Take it from a white kid, with no legacy or athletic preference, who got into Harvard without straight As. Harvard took me over kids with better GPAs, including my own valedictorian and class president, for essentially academic reasons. Now, they may have been mistaken, and you don't have to agree with them. But other admissions offices made a similar mistake about me that year, and there's no sign of any nefarious motive. They just thought I would be a good college student.

This is all to say that suing a school like Harvard over alleged discrimination against white kids will get murky very fast.  It's not just grades and scores. It's also the classes the students took, the rigor of the school they go to, what their letters of recommendation say, the quality of their essays. You are not going to find that mythical Clear Ranked List running from 1 to 1600 or 1 to 2000. It just does not exist. Now, Harvard and schools like this certainly exploit the murkiness of this process to do what they want with admissions, including giving advantages to athletes and legacies, and even giving special preferences to academically undistinguished children of major donors. (Hint: rhymes with "Mar-ed Bushner.") But they also use that messy, murky process in pursuit of intellectual and academic excellence.

Now, my high school had a long drought during which we didn't get any applicants into Harvard at all, for something like 25 years, which really stings when you're a school in Massachusetts. It wasn't just my year's valedictorian that they turned down. They turned down years and years of our valedictorians. (I'm happy to say that my old high school now places some students at the Big H every year or two.) So, the year before I got in, some people decided that the only hope was ... affirmative action. A lot of hopes got pinned on one of the school's few (at that time) African-American students, someone whom I will call "Edward." Edward wasn't going to be valedictorian or salutatorian, but he was in the Honors Society, and ... you see where this was going. Some teachers and administrators, and some students, reasoned that although our white A students couldn't get in, a black A- student would. It was the Myth of the Underqualifed Minority, put into practice with the best intentions in the world. Everyone involved genuinely liked him, thought he was smart, and wished him the best.

Some people believed, as a totally self-evident fact, that Edward's race would make him a lock for admission. Once, when he was fretting about whether or not he'd get in, I heard his best friend tell him, in a get-real-already tone, "Edward. You're black." That simple. (The assumption baked into the Myth of the Unqualified Minority, of course, is that Harvard has to take A- students as the only way to reach its affirmative action goals. I mean, how many black A students could there be in America? No one at my school would have accepted that premise had it been presented to them explicitly. But that's what the Myth of the Unqualified Minority implies.)

Edward did not get in, of course. He went to another very good school, but he may never have been in serious competition for Harvard. But because so many people around him, including adults, had bought into the Myth of the Underqualified Minority and sold it to him, Edward was set up both for deep disappointment and, worse still, for guilt. After he got rejected, I literally heard him say, "I feel like I let everybody down."

You didn't let us down, Edward. It was the other way around.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

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