Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Affirmative action raises a lot of difficult arguments, pro and con. But I have to say that something like this from former U of M President Leo Bollinger fails to convince me:

There are many misperceptions about how race and ethnicity are considered in college admissions. Competitive colleges and universities are always looking for a mix of students with different experiences and backgrounds—academic, geographic, international, socioeconomic, athletic, public-service oriented and, yes, racial and ethnic.

It is true that in sorting the initial rush of applications, large universities will give “points” for various factors in the selection process in order to ensure fairness as various officers review applicants. Opponents of Michigan’s undergraduate system complain that an applicant is assigned more points for being black, Hispanic or Native American than for having a perfect SAT score. This is true, but it trivializes the real issue: whether, in principle, race and ethnicity are appropriate considerations.

I can accept that policies which award or punish individuals on the basis of race can be justified in some circumstances. But it seems pretty clear that the preference is always in favor of color blind policies and to justify adoption of a race preference policy requires stronger evidence than this. Bollinger asserts that diversity is a critical element in education, but he is very vague about what diversity means and what the benefits are. For instance Michigan, like other state universities, has a preference for state residents. If diversity is so mightily important, why not a preference for students from other parts of the country or from other nations? Since undergraduates are overwhelmingly between 18 and about 24, why not award points for being over 30? Why not a policy of religious diversity?

Another unexamined assumption here is that increased numbers of minority students necessarily leads to a more 'diverse' college experience for all students. My own High School proved how false this is. Mathematically, we were almost perfectly integrated, with white and black students each being around 45% and small minorities of Asian, Philipino and hispanic students. But my college prep classes were almost entirely white students bussed in from a wealthy neighborhood. They included a handful of black students who lived in the affluent neighborhoods most of the white students did, and some white and Asian students from bad neighborhoods, but not a single black student from the poor neighborhood the school was located in. Those students were all in separate classes arranged by test scores. They included jocks like Robert 'Spider' Gaines, who was a football star at Washington and scored a Rose Bowl touchdown before washing out in the NFL. Undoubtedly, they included several alumni who now have 'tenure' at state institutions like San Quentin and Pelican Bay. Ironically, they also included the only one of my class of 400 who ever became really famous, OJ prosecutor Chris Darden. (I had Chris in only one class, when a teacher I argued with punished me by re-assigning me to be in the lower level class in 12th Grade English, where I was one of 2 white students, the other one being on the football team. Chris was on the 'slow' track all through High School.) The 'separate but equal' system in our school was so developed that we even elected two commencement speakers, one black and one white, for each class.

The argument that affirmative action is necessary to address historic inequality is also untenable. After all, Japanese-Americans were, relatively recently, subject to mass incarceration solely because of their ethnic background. The abuse of Chinese-Americans was less spectacular and is less well known, but the history of mistreatment is extensive. Both of these groups today are actually expected to meet higher standards than white students for university admission in many cases. One of the reasons that California is unwilling to adopt pure meritocratic standards for admission to UC is that it would lead to classes of overwhelmingly East Asian ancestry.

I'm also sympathetic to another argument against race-based affirmative action that I've seen made by Thomas Sowell. Sowell essentially argues that there aren't enough black students available with the academic preparations to succeed to fill the spots that the most prestigious colleges want to give to black students, so students who would otherwise attend, and be successful in, B list colleges take the extra spots. Those colleges in turn want to have a reasonable number of black students, so they recruit students who would otherwise attend, and be successful in C list colleges, but are often in over their heads in the B list schools. And so on down the line, with the result that too many black students are in more demanding academic environments than they are prepared for and many who might succeed in a more modest school flunk out of name schools. I supported myself at UCSC partly by tutoring EEOP students, and I really think that many of them would have been better off, and would have done well, in the less competitive California State University system.

Mark Kleiman has an excellent analysis of why 'race neutral' systems aren't likely to get around the problem, and a more persuasive argument for admissions policies that openly factor in racial origin.