Jan 292003

Goodwin Liu has exposed, in the Washington Post and at greater length in the forthcoming Michigan Law Review, a flaw in the thinking of affirmative action opponents that he calls the “causation fallacy.”

Affirmative action is widely thought to be unfair because it benefits minority applicants at the expense of more deserving whites. Yet this perception tends to inflate the cost beyond its real proportions. While it is true that affirmative action gives minority applicants a significant boost in selective admissions, it is not true that most white applicants would fare better if elite schools eliminated the practice. Understanding why is crucial to separating fact from fiction in the national debate over affirmative action…

…Allan Bakke, a rejected white applicant who won admission in 1978 to the University of California at Davis’s medical school after convincing the high court that the school’s policy of reserving 16 of 100 seats each year for minority students was unconstitutional. For many Americans, the success of Bakke’s lawsuit has long highlighted what is unfair about affirmative action: Giving minority applicants a significant advantage causes deserving white applicants to lose out. But to draw such an inference in Bakke’s case — or in the case of the vast majority of rejected white applicants — is to indulge in what I call “the causation fallacy.”

This is a “fallacy,” according to Liu, because the vast majority of rejected white applicants would still be rejected, even without affirmative action. This fallacy works in mysterious ways. The lower the standards for black applicants, the more rejected whites clear the bar. The more rejected whites with better credentials than accepted blacks, the less certain it is that any particular white would have been admitted if there were no affirmative action. It follows, from Liu’s logic, that the lower the standards for blacks as opposed to whites, the less cause for whites to complain!

Liu makes a big deal of the fact that Gratz and Bakke very likely wouldn’t have been admitted regardless, and in any case couldn’t be sure. He then publishes the following table, of admissions rates at “five highly selective universities” (this is thanks to Ampersand, who takes it from Liu’s full Law Review article, which I haven’t read and isn’t yet online):

SAT score
< 1000
Black rate
White rate
Rate w/o AA

One wonders, first, what the raw numbers are. They would be easy to include and would prove instructive. (The nice round numbers in the upper rows in the black column make me suspect that we are dealing with a vanishingly small sample size.) It is fishy that the percentages of whites admitted in the upper percentiles declines without affirmative action. Ampersand comments that “[a] white student with a combined score below 1000 has a 96.7% chance of rejection from a selective school with affirmative action, and a 93.3% chance of rejection if aa didn’t exist. In either case, the odds are overwhelming she’ll be rejected; and the primary reason for the rejection is her poor SATs, not her race.” An opponent of affirmative action might retort that whites with such scores would have twice as good a chance at admission. This is a fine example of how to lie with statistics.

But the overwhelming question about this data is, how does he know? If Bakke and Gratz can’t prove that they would have been admitted in the absence of affirmative action, how can Liu establish the SAT distribution in its absence?

Ampersand also notes how whiny the AA plaintiffs are:

Anti-affirmative action lawsuits are not put forward by whites who would have gotten in to a selective college if only affirmative action didn’t exist. They’re put forward by whites who have such a strong sense of entitlement that they can’t admit they failed to gain admission because, on the merits, they didn’t deserve admission.

Well maybe, but Gratz and Bakke are paragons of virtue compared to Miranda, Escobedo, Gideon, and other plaintiffs in famous Constitutional cases. Spy magazine once ran a little story profiling such plaintiffs called “Dirtball Heroes of the Constitution,” and there isn’t an AA plaintiff who would even come close to qualifying. In any case, aren’t you supposed to take the plaintiff as you find him?

This whole business of percentages disguises the fundamental fact that for every black applicant who is admitted because of affirmative action there is a white applicant who is rejected for the same reason. We may not know which white applicant, but that fact is immaterial. Liu suggests “rethinking the conventional view that a race-conscious admissions policy pits whites against minorities in a zero-sum game,” but a zero-sum game is precisely what it is, and what it has to be.

  3 Responses to “Affirmative Action Number Fun”

  1. […] All of this is doubly embarrassing because I was perfectly willing to treat race as a valid category when it suited my purposes. […]

  2. The opposition to affirmative action isn’t that the practice “takes spots away from whites,” it is that the practice is inherently discriminatory. Schools have lower standards for minorities because they say that they want a “different perspective,” (quoted from the University of Michigan website). The problem with this statement is that it makes a highly discriminatory assumption: that people who look different must think different. This is just untrue. Just because someone is of a different race does not mean that they have a “different perspective,” and to assume that they do is just as discriminatory as calling him or her a racial slur.

    Additionally, the affirmative action practice has been used to help the economically disadvantaged. The problem with this is that it simply does not help all of the people who are economically disadvantaged, and it helps many who are economically well off. To assume that just because someone is a minority that they have had a harder life, or that they have less money is another inherently discriminatory principle built into the program.

    Furthermore, the affirmative action program is supposed to compensate for discrimination in selection processes, so when will it end? When discrimination is significantly less prevalent, will the system treat each person as an equal? Or will the system still be set up to give people an advantage who haven’t earned it.

    To highlight the absurdity of the whole thing, consider this. Airlines have different standards for airline pilots of different races. In order to get a license to fly from a major airline company, you have to take a flying test. A white pilot typically has to score above a 90 to receive his or her license. A minority only has to score a 70. Who would you rather have flying your plane, a white person who scored a 90 or a minority who scored a 70?

  3. What is the affirmative action in equal protection case?…

    affirmative action
    a.    Bakke:  Powell
    i.    race cannot be determinative; no quotas
    ii.    but race can be a plus factor
    iii.    (Brennan dissent): as long as it is to remedy effect of past discrimination
    b.    Hopwood  5th Circuit only!
    i.    Bakke …

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