Affirmative Action for Today

(Editor’s note: On September 29, Notre Dame philosophy professor James Sterba and George Leef discussed the advisability of having colleges adopt admissions policies that would give preferences to students from families of lower socio-economic status. In our October 5 Clarion Call,  Leef set forth his case against  such policies. Professor Sterba’s response follows. Leef’s rejoinder to his arguments can be found here.)

Recently, George Leef and I were on a panel at Ponoma College debating the legitimacy of class-based affirmative action, specifically at elite colleges and universities. While we both agree that class-based and race-based affirmative action needed to be considered together, we differed as to whether they could be justified. While I supported both forms of affirmative action, Leef opposed them. 

Leef opposed these forms of affirmative action claiming that the benefits of adopting them have been overestimated and their costs have been underestimated. Their benefits are overestimated, according to Leef, because professors at elite colleges and universities schools are “so wrapped up in their research” that they short-change their teaching. 

Yet the bottom line here is how lower-class and minority students who graduate from such institutions actually fare. So it is worth noting that a thirty-year study at Harvard University that found only two correlates of its successful graduates (success being defined in terms of high income, community involvement, and a satisfying career). They were low SAT scores and blue-collar, typically lower-income, background.

Similarly, if we look to the effects of elite colleges and universities on minority students, particularly African Americans, we find that 40% of the lawyers at top law firms and 48% of black law professors come from the top ten law schools. Moreover, 25% of black law professors in the U.S. have graduated from just Harvard Law School and Yale Law School. And, as even critics of affirmative action have allowed, if race-based affirmative action were eliminated at those two schools, they would have no African-American graduates. So it would seem that the benefits of class-based and race-based affirmative action for those who receive it have not been overestimated.

Leef also claimed that the costs of race-based and class-based affirmative action underestimate their costs because they fail to take into account that these forms of affirmative action create a mismatch between schools and candidates. Defending this view, Richard Sander provides a statistical argument that affirmative action mismatches black students at law schools by admitting them with lower LSAT scores and undergraduate grades that put them at an academic disadvantage, thereby resulting in their having lower grades and lower rates of graduating and passing the bar.  Sander further argues that if affirmative action ended, blacks would cascade to lower-ranked schools where they would perform dramatically better, causing a net increase of 8% in the number of new black lawyers, and a net increase of 22% in the number of blacks passing the bar on their first attempt.

To determine how well cascading blacks would do at the lower-ranked schools, Sander assumes that they would do as well as whites at those schools were doing with the similar LSAT scores and undergraduate grades, given that, according to Sander, LSAT scores and undergraduate grades are the only relevant criteria for predicting law school success.  On this basis, Sander is able to claim that blacks who receive affirmative action to attend a higher-ranked law school are “mismatched” – they would be better off if they had attended lower-ranked schools.

However, when some of Sander’s critics proposed determining how cascading blacks would do at the lower-ranked schools by more plausibly assuming that they would do as well as blacks at those same schools with similar LSAT scores and undergraduate grades were doing, Sander’s statistical argument began to collapse. Under this assessment, it turned out that cascading would not help blacks at all; blacks would do better if they, in fact, remained at higher-ranked schools as beneficiaries of affirmative action.

There are also educational benefits to non-minorities from race-based affirmative action. For example, a study of 1800 white law students from Harvard and University of Michigan Law School found that 8 out of 10 said that discussions they had with students of other races affected their views of the criminal justice system.

Interestingly, surveys in the U.S. today show that white Americans overwhelmingly publicly ascribe to principles of racial equality and integration. At the same time, 80% of whites recently surveyed deny that racial discrimination against people of color is a significant problem. In another survey, 70% of whites believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities. In this survey, 80% of whites also thought that underrepresented groups, such as blacks and Latinos, receive equal, if not preferred, treatment in education. Another recent survey found that 68% of whites think that blacks have the same or more opportunities than whites to be “really successful and wealthy.”   According to this survey, a majority of whites think that the average black American is educationally just as well off, or better off than, the average white American; 47% think that blacks and whites enjoy the same standard of living. Still another survey found that most Americans believe that “reverse discrimination” is the predominant type of discrimination in the U.S. today.

However, if we consider actual data on racial discrimination in the U.S. today, we find:           

1) According to a study of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, the loan rejection rate for blacks in the highest income bracket is identical to the rejection rate of whites in the lowest income bracket. In another study, minority applicants are 50% more likely to be denied a loan than white applicants of equivalent economic status.           

2) In a study by the Urban Institute, equally qualified, identically dressed, white and African American applicants for jobs were used to test for bias in the job market for newspaper-advertised positions. White and African Americans were matched identically for age, work experience, speech patterns, personal characteristics, and physical build. The study found repeated discrimination against African American male applicants. The white men received three times as many job offers as equally qualified African Americans who interviewed for the same positions.            

3) In resume-only tests, whites were almost twice as likely as blacks to be blatantly preferred, despite their having less objective experience and fewer credentials.

4) In studies done in New York City and Milwaukee, whites with prison records were more likely to be hired than black men without prison records.           

5) In elementary and high schools, according to a national study, even when blacks demonstrate equal ability with whites, they are still far less likely to be placed in advanced classes.  Even when children from lower-income families, who are disproportionately of color, answer correctly all the math questions on a standardized test, it turns out that they are still less likely to be placed in advanced tracks than kids from upper-income families who miss a fourth of the questions on that test.

Accordingly, it is still important to have minority students at elite colleges and universities who can effectively speak to these existing forms racial discrimination and thereby educate their fellow students, such that, at some point, we will have the political will to put an end to these forms of racial discrimination once and for all.