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Affirmative Distraction

Racial preferences won't solve racial inequality

The United States has a problem with persisting racial inequality. It is, in part, a legacy of our ignoble past: the institution of chattel slavery and a century of unfreedom and unequal citizenship for African-Americans after emancipation. Americans have a moral imperative to redress the consequences of that past. But affirmative action isn’t the remedy for this problem. It’s a distraction.

That doesn’t mean that affirmative action should never be practiced, that it’s morally wrong, or that it can never be a suitable policy. Those are separate questions. Racial inequality is deep and abiding, showing no sign of going away, and we are a lesser nation for it. Yet while affirmative action helps to obtain an adequate representation of diverse ethnic groups at elite institutions of higher education, it imposes serious costs.

Institutionalizing the practice of preferential affirmative action when assessing African-Americans for selection into highly competitive arenas—in other words, using different standards when judging the fitness of blacks competing with others for access to certain venues—is inconsistent with the goal of racial equality. It invites us to become liars—to pretend that false things are true. It invites us to look the other way. It’s not equality; it’s the opposite of equality. Knowing that I’m being judged by standards that are different and less rigorous by virtue of the fact that my ancestors suffered some indignity is itself undignified.

Racial preferences persist because they represent the path of least resistance. If an administrator of a selective institution saw that blacks were a minuscule percent of his student body, he would want to change that. If he found that admitting African-American students at a lower percentile of performance would ease his public-relations problem, then he would do it. But when thousands of people in that same situation make the same decision and place it beyond criticism, the goal of equality suffers. Failing to address ourselves to the developmental disparities manifest in test scores, as well as failing to change the dynamics of human development at the root of black underrepresentation in elite and selective venues, means failing to solve the inequality problem.

Head counts are no substitute for performance, and everyone knows it. No policy can paper over the racial dimension of academic disparities. True equality would seek to remedy the foundational circumstances reflected in the underrepresentation of African-Americans at the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, Holy Cross, or Harvard. I’m for racial equality, not patronization. Don’t patronize my people, inflict on us the consequences of a soft bigotry of low expectations, or presume that we’re not capable of manifesting excellence in the same way as any other people. Don’t judge blacks by a different standard.

Two competing narratives exist to explain racial inequality: a bias narrative and a development narrative. The bias narrative holds that, even today, white supremacy and institutional racism keep black people from gaining entry into elite and selective venues and that the remedy for this is affirmative action. This was correct half a century ago. But does any serious person today really believe that Brown University, where I teach, is a racist institution? Does any serious person believe that the bias narrative accounts for what, in the absence of racial preferences, would be the relatively low number of African-Americans at Harvard, while Asian-American students there are excelling at some of the most difficult intellectual tasks that humans can be asked to perform? I don’t think so.

The development narrative holds instead that realities of racial inequality are a consequence of underdevelopment. That underdevelopment certainly has a genealogy rooted in bias. Historically, blacks were not afforded equal opportunity in the housing market, were not given a fair chance to accumulate wealth, and didn’t inherit from their ancestors that to which they were due, because their ancestors were enslaved and not compensated properly for their labor. Some of the social and cultural factors that might impair the development of black intellectual performance have their roots in this history. But the problem of inequality for African-Americans today is not mainly the expression of a racist society. And jiggering the test-score standards for people to get into elite institutions is not a remedy for it.

Affirmative action has nothing to do with whether blacks go to college; it’s about which colleges we go to. Policymakers can close the college education gap without practicing affirmative action. This policy is really about the most selective institutions—about choosing elites. That’s all the more reason to be exercised about the prospect that those choices would become grounded in a permanent and institutionalized practice of judging blacks by a different standard.

In any event, to have misgivings about affirmative action is not to be indifferent to the problem of racial inequality. Indeed, anyone who takes the problem of racial inequality seriously ought to have misgivings about the practice of affirmative action to the extent that it displaces deliberation and action oriented toward redressing the deep causes of that inequality.

Data illustrate how deep the chasm is that separates the economic and social status of African-Americans from the rest of society. The racial disparity in poverty rates has closed somewhat over the last 40 years. But as of 2016, more than one-quarter of African-Americans lived in households below the poverty line, and over two-fifths of black children lived in poor households, compared with 10 percent of whites. A nontrivial racial disparity still holds for unemployment rates—the black rate is consistently double that for whites. College education is trending upward for everybody, but the racial gap remains, with 36 percent of whites 25 and older holding a four-year degree in 2015, compared with 23 percent of blacks.

Disparities also exist for family life. More than half of black children live in households with a female parent and no spouse present, compared with 18 percent for whites. Children who grow up without the benefit and security of two parents in the home have a tougher path through life. Meantime, in 2014, more than 70 percent of black women who gave birth weren’t married, compared with 29 percent for whites. Pregnancy rates have declined for teenagers, as have abortion rates. But a substantial racial disparity persists: 2.7 percent of black women in a given year between the ages of 15 and 44 have an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, compared with 1 percent of white women.

“More than half of black children live with a female parent and no spouse present, compared with 18 percent for whites.”

That’s real inequality. Undoubtedly, it has roots in slavery. Undoubtedly, it’s related to the fact that African-American family life existed at the whim of the slave master for all those generations. But the relevant question is what to do about it, not who is to blame. One can make a very good living today advocating on behalf of the interests of African-Americans by finding people to blame and then blaming them loudly. But unless that leads to economic and social development for blacks, it won’t solve the problem.

Stark educational disparities bring us to the root of the underrepresentation of blacks in elite venues of higher education. The precursors of that underrepresentation are evident in the statistics early on. At four years old, vast disparities among the races exist for proficiency in the recognition of letters and numbers, with African-American youngsters lagging behind white and Asian-American youngsters. The story continues throughout childhood. As the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a comprehensive survey of American students that examines their mastery of reading and mathematics, shows, black students score poorly, and the gap widens as they age. In 2009, 36 percent of black fourth-graders and 50 percent of black eighth-graders possessed mathematics skills that were below basic. Fully 70 percent of African-American 12th-graders scored below basic on math in 2005.

Affirmative action evades this problem and pretends that it doesn’t exist. Consider the proportion of ninth-graders who earned any credit in advanced-placement courses in 2013, broken out by math, science, and ethnicity. Just 23 percent of black students earned advanced credit in any subject, 6 percent earned any in math, and 8 percent earned any in science. By contrast, 40 percent of white American students earned AP credit in any subject, 17 percent earned any in math, and 16 percent earned any in science. How could this disparity be otherwise, given the data we saw above? Should policymakers start affirmative action earlier? If it’s such a good thing, why wait until students get to college? Should affirmative action determine selections into advanced-placement courses? And can we really say that the disparity owes solely to racism—that when high school guidance counselors and teachers see a black kid, they determine for themselves that he or she is never going to have a chance to excel in the advanced-placement courses the way Asian kids do?

Let’s look more carefully at the policy of affirmative action in higher-education admissions. If you told me in 1970, “We’ve never had any blacks at this university. We’re going to do something about that,” I would not have had a problem. If you said, “We must have some African-Americans in our student body because streets are burning in the ghettos of America,” as William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, stated in a book called The Shape of the River, I wouldn’t have had a problem with that, at least not as a transitional policy. What I have a problem with is enshrining, making permanent, and institutionalizing a practice of judging blacks by academic standards different from those applied to other people.

One of my early papers, published in the American Economic Review in 1993, was titled “Will Affirmative Action Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?” My coauthor, Stephen Coate from Cornell University, and I maintained that relaxing selection criteria can change an applicant’s incentives to acquire skills and also affect the inferences that an observer might make about that applicant’s capabilities. What concerned us is the possibility that the reputation of black students would be marred, given widespread awareness that they have been admitted under a lower standard. One can say that it’s racist to draw the conclusion that black students on average are not as sharp as others, since they’ve been admitted under a less strenuous bar, but it’s also rational. If we institutionalize the practice of using a different standard of selection, how can we keep people from appreciating the logical implications of that practice? Maybe those who have been around for a while and become socially adept at managing their way through American society aren’t going to state these concerns explicitly. But lots of people are going to think it if, for example, the SAT scores for the black students admitted to Harvard are a standard deviation below those of everybody else.

Reputations matter, but so do incentives. If you want to go to a good law school in America and you’re white or Asian, you’d better have an A or an A-minus GPA, and you had better be scoring at the 90th percentile of test-takers on the LSAT. Otherwise, you’re not going to be admitted to the University of Michigan or to the University of California–Berkeley, not to mention Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. But if you’re black, and you’ve got an A-minus or a B-plus average at a good feeder school, and you’re at the 70th percentile of the LSAT test-takers, you’re far likelier to get in to most of these places. Do you think that this dynamic has any effects on the incentives of young people? Take two samples of students and tell one of them, “If you don’t have an A-minus with a 90th percentile LSAT, you won’t get in,” and tell the other one, “If you’ve got a B-plus and a 70th percentile, you’ll get in.” Then conduct a controlled experiment to see whether any behavioral differences result in those two populations. Why would we configure our practices so as to communicate negative incentives for performance to the people whom we’re trying to encourage to perform?

A science-themed tile mosaic greets entrants to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, founded in 1938. (ROBERT NICKELSBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Another concern with affirmative action relates to the performance of students after they’re admitted to a given school. The U.S. has lots of different colleges and lots of different students. A matching problem ensues when kids and colleges get together and decide who’s going to go where. What if applicants get assigned to colleges where the intellectual demands outpace their capabilities? Some colleges are more demanding than others. The ones that admit from the far-right tail of the distribution of academic performance among applicants are bound to be a tougher slog for anybody.

Economists have studied this question. Peter Arcidiacono of Duke has found that the distribution of black students across colleges arrayed by how demanding they are on the students, measured by the average SAT score of their student bodies, is skewed. Colleges that are not very selective, as well as elite, selective colleges where affirmative action is actually practiced, admit higher shares of black students. Colleges in the middle, by and large, are not really practicing affirmative action because they’re admitting pretty much everyone who applies; their share of black students is lower.

If colleges are competing for black kids, of course the more elite colleges will enjoy a leg up in the competition. Brown and Penn, for instance, are going to have an edge over Penn State and the University of Rhode Island. If you’re a talented African-American youngster, you’d obviously rather go to Brown than the University of Rhode Island in almost all cases. But you might find yourself in the left tail in the distribution of academic preparation at Brown, and you might find yourself in the middle part of the distribution of academic preparation at the University of Rhode Island.

Who’s made worse off and who’s made better off in that deal? Brown is better off because it can report a higher number of African-Americans in its student body. But it’s less than obvious that the student is better off. He might be, of course, because Brown is a more valuable credential; he might not be because if he’s at the bottom of the class, even at Brown, he might learn less than if he’s in the middle or the top of the class someplace else. It’s an empirical question, not a question of principle.

Two possibilities obtain. Either selective schools serve students of all levels of academic preparation better, or selective schools are better only for students with a relatively high level of academic preparation. In the first case, there really is no trade-off. Black students are always going to be better off going to a superior college. But in the second scenario, being well matched with a school of one’s capability really does matter. Suppose the school is the California Institute of Technology: maybe you don’t want to be at Cal Tech if you don’t really have a mastery over differential and integral calculus. Maybe you still want to learn physics, but you should learn it someplace else.

Academics who study the mismatch hypothesis, which argues that affirmative-action beneficiaries are misplaced academically, have come to different conclusions. Would it matter if it were true? I suspect it would. In the graduate economics courses that I teach, it matters whether students have mastery over the technical apparatus that we employ when we do statistics and mathematical analysis of models. It matters a lot. Maybe it doesn’t matter in law school. Or maybe it does matter and people simply avoid looking at it.

Finally, there is the practical issue of the Harvard and University of North Carolina lawsuits to be decided by the Supreme Court this term—and the facts that these lawsuits reveal. Arcidiacono, the expert witness representing the Asian-American plaintiffs in the cases, argues in his brief that if you look at the qualifications of the Asians applying to Harvard and compare them with those of other groups—whites, blacks, and Hispanics—you see that they are better qualified but admitted at lower rates.

Harvard is becoming more selective over the course of the twenty-first century, admitting a smaller proportion of its applicants. And therefore, of course, the disparity in admissions rates among races has declined, since admissions rates are falling for everyone. But Asian-Americans have the lowest admissions rate, and African-Americans the highest, in terms of the proportion of the applicants who apply to Harvard and are admitted. That doesn’t control for their qualifications. It just looks at the raw number. Yet the Asian-Americans have the higher test scores. They are the least likely to be admitted, while presenting the strongest academic qualifications. The average of the SAT scores among those Asian-Americans admitted is over 760 on an 800-point scale. African-Americans have the lowest average SAT score of the applicants admitted to Harvard.

Arcidiacono simply asks: For applicants to Harvard University over an extended period, in what decile of the distribution of academic index does each group fall? The index, by the way, is the average of high school grades and admissions-test scores. For African-Americans, almost 39 percent of the applicants were in the bottom tenth of the applicant pool in terms of their academic index. Five percent of whites fell into that decile. Ninety percent of the applicants had stronger academic indices than the bottom tenth—but nearly 40 percent of African-Americans fall into the bottom tenth, and 60 percent are in the bottom two-tenths. That means that four in every five applicants presented better academic qualifications than 60 percent of the black applicant pool.

Now consider the top decile. Less than 1 percent of African-American applicants to Harvard presented academic qualifications in the top 10 percent of the applicant pool, compared with about 8 percent of whites and 16 percent of Asians. Now, this is just one school, and it’s Harvard. And since anyone can apply to Harvard, there could be a differential selectivity across ethnic groups—that is, African-Americans with relatively low scores may be applying at higher rates than whites with relatively low scores because the whites know that they’re not going to get in, while the blacks know that there’s some chance that they might get admitted notwithstanding their lower academic qualifications. Indeed, lots of low-scoring African-Americans are applying to Harvard because they think that they might have a chance of getting in. But if you’re a strong academic performer and you’re black, it’s a coin flip as to whether you get admitted to Harvard. If you’re a strong academic performer and you’re Asian, you’ve got less than a 10 percent chance of admission. That’s why they’re in court.

Suppose you’re a good-but-not-great student. Suppose you’re in the seventh decile of the distribution of academic performance—between the 60th and 70th percentile of the population. If you’re black, you’ve got better than a one-third chance of getting in. If you’re Asian, you’ve got a one-thirtieth probability of getting admitted. Now Harvard says that it’s interested in well-rounded people, that it’s not only focused on academic performance, and that it employs a broad template when deciding how to compose its class. What Harvard is asking you to believe is that this is all fair—that the nonacademic qualities that it desires in students just happen to manifest themselves at a vastly higher rate among African-Americans than they do among Asian-Americans. Harvard is going to have a hard time convincing anybody of that.

A happy graduate (ROBERT NICKELSBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

This issue matters. Our students should be able to stand on solid ground as equally effective participants in the enterprise of higher education without pretense and without lying. Disparities in preparation will reflect themselves after admission. Unless we actually succumb to the temptations of relativism and refuse to make any distinctions or draw any lines, somebody’s paper is going to be written better than somebody else’s paper. Somebody’s going to be able to do a problem set and get the correct answers, and somebody else is not going to be able to do it. Somebody is going to be able to read the material, absorb what it says, and coherently recount with a critical eye what’s been said better than other people are able to do it. Unless you believe that admissions criteria are unrelated to those performance criteria, if you compose a class using different standards, you’re going to compose a class with differences in performance. That’s inevitable.

People are different. I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush. But I’m a statistician by training. There’s an inescapable logic to this. You can do two things with these differences in performance. You can pretend that they don’t exist—that’s what I mean by lying—or make them evident in the way that you deal with the people in front of you. The temptation to do the first is overwhelming. But that’s not equality. Do you think that university administrators don’t know this? They know, and they’re not saying, because there’s a political understanding that what we need to do to deal with the legacy of slavery and racism is to patronize blacks. And that makes me angry.

Read the piece at the City Journal here.

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