Thoughts On Affirmative Action, Ctd

Our Asian-American Harvard grad writes back:

1. Let’s look at DeBoer’s core argument:

I have no doubt that Asian Americans suffer from racism and oppression in this country. No doubt at all. However, they don’t suffer from systematic exclusion from American colleges in general or from elite colleges specifically. On the contrary: in both cases, Asian Americans represent a higher percentage of college students than they do the population writ large.

This is, frankly, codswallop. DeBoer ignores the fact that Asian-Americans admitted to selective schools must have higher academic qualifications than Whites! This, not crude proportional representation, is the very essence of discrimination.

Of course, DeBoer’s “out” is that he doesn’t believe in academic qualifications or merit, because he doesn’t believe that “standardized tests and grades can be objective and separated from socioeconomic context.” But the fact is that test scores/grades are the most accurate predictor of academic success that we have. The fact that they correlate with socioeconomic status doesn’t change this fact. Far less does it mean that anyone, least of all Asian-Americans, simply absorb academic ability through some sort of magical force field that permeates their homes.

There is a subtle subtext to being Asian-American in this country that goes something like this:

even if you were born in the Midwest and speak English without an accent, mainstream American will always consider you somewhat of an outsider, a foreigner, or, at best, robotic, automaton-like, part of an undifferentiated mass. Therefore, you must work very hard to excel in areas in which your ability will be obvious and objectively verifiable. Under no circumstances should your prospects depend on people (read: White people) liking you personally or finding you relatable (e.g. sales, entertainment, middle management, or even practicing law in front of a judge or jury).

This (fading) subtext, in part, explains the high prevalence of Asians-Americans in technical and STEM fields and in higher education in general. It may also have socioeconomic benefits for Asian-Americans, on average. But it is perverse to visit race-based collective punishment on the basis of hard work. This, frankly, is part of what grinds my gears: DeBoer’s sanctimonious, hand-wringing concern for “real people” over “abstractions.” We are real people.

2. It is true that good universities (including my alma mater among many others) have world-class academic departments while practicing affirmative action on an university-wide admissions-level. But the critical point is that no physics, chemistry, or any other rigorous academic program practices affirmative action at a departmental level – classes are graded and standards applied without taking race into account. This inevitably generates racial disparities.

This is why STEM graduates, as an overall class, are demographically different from university graduates in general (in a way that makes them, yes, more closely resemble the student body of Cal Tech). This is also a large problem with affirmative action practiced at the admissions level: at some point, the race-based, thumb-on-the-scale must be lifted, with predictable results. Advocates rarely acknowledge this.

For example, passage rates for medical board exams show racial disparities for underrepresented minorities – this on top of the fact that medical schools don’t practice strong affirmative action (Blacks and Latinos are significantly under-represented at med schools to begin with). Thus, if we look at the data, it seems that the ability to earn a medical license cannot be “objective and separated from socioeconomic context,” under Freddie’s criteria. Should affirmative action apply here as well?

The standard liberal position on this issue is untenably crude and not comprehensively thought through.

Another reader joins the debate:

A number of comments suggested that Caltech could easily implement affirmative action without compromising the rigor of their program. Harvard has some of the nation’s best science departments and they practice affirmative action, so why can’t Caltech?

I have no idea if the broader point stands, but this argument isn’t particularly convincing. Remember: everyone at Caltech has to take a core curriculum of mathematics and physics. The relevant question is not how diverse Harvard is, but how diverse the math and physics majors at Harvard are.

There is a relatively well-known phenomenon of women and minorities who begin college with plans to major in a STEM field sorting out of these fields as they progress towards their degrees. Here is one recent paper. There are undoubtedly many forces at work here: discrimination and a lack of role models to name a few. But at the margin, it’s at least possible that affirmative action could play a role.

If you enter university less mathematically well-prepared than your peers, it’s inevitable that you’ll struggle in certain courses. We’d like to think that we grade against an objective standard, but there’s always an implicit curve: we determine what is reasonable to expect of an undergraduate from the undergraduates we teach!

I would by no means characterize the humanities as “soft” or “easy” subjects: indeed my classics and philosophy courses as an undergrad were extremely challenging. But it is certainly true that some majors are less demanding than others and the easier majors tend not to have a quantitative focus. If minority students know they will be disadvantaged relative to their peers in certain disciplines, they may well switch majors. The end result may be fewer minorities in the sciences: at a slightly lower-ranked institution, say a top state school or liberal arts college, these students very well might not have switched out of the sciences. Indeed, the overall quality of instruction is likely higher at such schools than it is at Harvard. (On a personal note, I am extremely glad that I didn’t attend a brand-name undergrad institution; if I had, I sincerely doubt that I would have become a professor.)

If using affirmative action to increase the number of minorities with Harvard degrees means fewer minorities in the sciences, which should we choose? I honestly don’t know, but it’s a question worth thinking about.