What’s In A Black Name? Ctd

A reader writes:

An experiment I’ve always wanted to see: mail out resumes with African (e.g. Nigerian) names and see what the response would be. I’d be also curious to see if resumes were sent with photos attached of the same person with the same resume with only the names changed, say Michael Smith vs. Jamar Smith, if there would be any difference. Basically what I’d like to know: is this an actual of pure racial bias, or this more of a cultural bias against people with more stereotypically black names?

Another reader:

One plausible explanation for the discrimination identified by the Gaddis study, other than naked racial animus/aversion, is that employers “discount” the educational achievement of black applicants based on the assumption that affirmative action gave them a boost along the way.

As your previous coverage of racial preferences in college admissions reflects, this is not an entirely unreasonable assumption, though many people do overestimate the effects of such racial preferences. As a quick proof-of-concept, I did a rough comparison of SAT numbers for one of the university pairs Gaddis highlights – Harvard vs. UMass Amherst.  This article from the Harvard Crimson indicates that the average SAT score for all incoming Harvard freshman last year was 2237 (on the 2400 point scale), but only 2107 for incoming African-American freshman.  For incoming White freshman, by comparison, it was 2233 (i.e., roughly the average for all freshman).

The UMass website, meanwhile, indicates an average SAT score for all incoming freshman of 1218 (on the 1600 point scale), which, assuming comparable performance on the essay section, translates to 1827 on the 2400 point scale.  I couldn’t find a racial breakdown of UMass scores, but let’s assume that incoming white students scored roughly the overall average, just as they did at Harvard.

So, when comparing Harvard students to UMass Amherst students in a race-blind hiring process, the average SAT gap would be 410, but when comparing a black Harvard student to a white UMass Amherst student, the average SAT gap is only 280.  That’s roughly a 30% reduction of the achievement premium supposedly signaled by the Harvard name.

Given that the potential employers in Gaddis’ study seemed to discount the achievement premium for African-American Harvard students all the way to zero, there’s obviously more going on here, but given that other studies have shown people tend to significantly overestimate the effects of racial preferences in admissions, I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow controlling for that factor eliminated a meaningful portion of the apparent hiring discrimination.

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.

Thoughts On Affirmative Action, Ctd

Many readers are agitated over this post:

Regarding the comments from the “Asian-American reader and Harvard grad with a JD and MPH” on rhetoric and composition, my field of discourse, I guess I never thought to consider Aristotle, Cicero, Campbell, Blair, John Quincy Adams, Nietzsche, Burke, etc., as “squishy” scholars. I suppose I could make some rude comment about the unenlightened, unethical, anti-humanities discourse of the commentator. However, I will just let his own remarks stand and undermine his own ethos and that of his argument.

Another has Freddie’s back:

I’ve enjoyed the dialogue between you and Freddie deBoer, and I am genuinely conflicted on the merits of the policy in question. While I appreciate your dedication to airing dissents, the recent reply from the Asian-American Harvard grad is both misinformed and mean-spirited toward Freddie. I think it’s worth noting a few things:

1. Freddie’s Ph.D. program in Rhetoric and Composition (he does not yet have his degree) is extremely rigorous and empirical; I’d love for your reader to read this article and explain how it typifies “squishy” humanities thinking: “Evaluating the Comparability of Two Measures of Lexical Diversity”

2. The idea that Freddie can be lumped in with any group of “happy talk” liberals (especially the anti-intellectual strawmen this reader depicts) is pretty laughable.

3.  To the larger argument: MIT is about 24% black and Latino and about 24% Asian. CalTech has chosen not to use affirmative action; that’s fine. But it is a choice, and the idea that they would be unable to put together a more diverse class should they choose to do so is not supported by any evidence at all.

4. The final anecdote about the risky brain surgery at the hospital that rewards diversity and not merit is a ridiculous false choice. Your reader went to Harvard, which has been open about trying to diversify its student body since the mid-1940s. Should your reader’s diploma have an asterisk on it? Forget brain surgery – I wouldn’t let this particular reader feed my cat.

Freddie also responds to the Harvard grad, in an email to the Dish:

My research interests are diverse, but most of my time is spent looking at spreadsheets, using algorithms used in natural language processing and corpus linguistics, typing away in R Studio. I do quantitative work, myself, computerized, quantitative work. I personally don’t think that makes my study more rigorous or meaningful, but clearly, the emailer does. Even a minute of genuine research would make this aspect of my research identity clear. Instead, the emailer Googled my name, spent 15 seconds, and did no other research to confirm his or her presumptions. I would call that remarkably lacking in merit, myself.

One more:

Your reader, his credentials aside, seems to forget that his alma matter has, according the US News, the third best chemistry department in the country, the second best physics department, the best biology department, the third best math department, and the seventh best statistics department in the country. Now, while I’m well aware that Cal Tech doesn’t use affirmative action, Harvard seems to be doing just fine using affirmative action, and in some cases, better than Cal Tech. Remember, Cal Tech is the anomaly here – all the Ivies and other elite colleges (MIT, Stanford, etc.) practicing affirmative action admit just as qualified students as Cal Tech, not worse ones. So to come out swinging with an argument that affirmative action is somehow harming scholarship or impeding human progress by prioritizing “jargon and happy-talk” over “traditional notions of academic rigor” is grossly inaccurate.

I also want to tie in this story over at the Upshot about how 80 percent of high-achieving students get into elite colleges. I think it’s important to remember that, while Asian-American students may be “underrepresented” at Harvard, they are not underrepresented in the college-educated population. In fact, the majority of adult Asians have college degrees. So it isn’t as though Asians are systematically being denied higher education in this country – they are in fact achieving it at a greater pace than the rest of us. To abolish affirmative action, aimed to help under-represented minorities in the entire education system, under the guise of helping the group that is honestly exceeding everyone else, seems wrong to me.

Thoughts On Affirmative Action, Ctd

A reader pushes back a bit:

I feel like you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth here. On the one hand, you say that use oppose affirmative action in the way that it explicitly uses race as a factor in determining admissions as being unfairly discriminatory towards qualified students. Yet, at the same time, you favor California’s 10% policy as a substitute, even though the only reason this works is because it draws on our country’s structural and institutional racism. So you’re against affirmative action if it happens explicitly, but you’re all for it if it’s an implicit part of the system? How do you see those two things as being meaningfully different?

Because one is explicit, racially discriminatory and clearly undermines the principle of equality of opportunity; and the other, while not ignoring racism, is implicit, race-neutral, and geared toward advancing equality of opportunity. From an Asian-American reader and Harvard grad with a JD and MPH:

First, I can’t help but notice that many liberals like Freddie who are quick to say things like “there is no such thing as a meritocracy” are credentialed in squishy academic studies (see his Ph.D. in “Rhetoric and Composition.”) The sad fact is that much of Academia, especially the humanities, has abandoned traditional notions of intellectual rigor in favor of jargon and happy-talk in which nothing you say can ever be wrong so long as you come out on the right side (“microaggressions,” “structural racism,” “patriarchy,” and so on). If this is your academic background, then it really is true that there is no such thing as meritocracy. But anyone who has struggled through calculus-based physics or Bayesian Statistics knows the truth:

not everyone can handle truly trough academic material, and it’s not merely a matter of being privileged. You note that Cal Tech doesn’t use affirmative action and now has a class that is 40% Asian. But the interesting question is why doesn’t Cal Tech practice affirmative action? The answer: because they bloody well can’t. The required core curriculum in Cal Tech includes quantum mechanics for everyone! Cal Tech can’t admit unprepared kids and then shunt them off into African-American Studies or Sociology.

This is a big problem with the illiberal left that isn’t properly acknowledged: they are truly anti-intellectual. There is still a strain of Marxist thought in the liberal humanities that treats science itself as fundamentally Western, patriarchal, and racist. The crowning jewels of humanity (calculus, relativity, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology) are treated as just another “way of knowing” the world. Although we aren’t there yet, this all reminds of me of the scene in Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou, where a woman bleeds to death during childbirth in China during Mao’s great leap forward, because the doctors in the hospital were all sent to be “re-educated” and have been replaced with seventeen-year-olds who can spout revolutionary dogma but are completely ignorant of medicine.

Liberals can talk a pretty game, but I wonder how many of them, if their child needed risky brain surgery, would hasten to a hospital whose motto is “We Put Diversity First,” or “We Don’t Believe in Merit?”

Another Harvard grad provides a solid assessment of the overall situation there:

I’ve been fascinated by your thread on the lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard. I believe the often-ignored but key issue in these kinds of discussions (flagged by Richard Posner, the eminent judge and author, here) is that Harvard, like all universities, runs itself as a business, and that business is based on maintaining and increasing the scale, power and influence of Harvard, as well as its brand as the gold standard of world universities.  The admissions policies of Harvard College should be understood in that light.

To support its academic bona fides, Harvard lavishes unmatched riches on its graduate and professional schools with the aim of ensuring that they’re world-renowned centers of academic and research excellence educating students with the highest potential in their disciplines (I imagine you saw evidence of this when you were a graduate student there).

The role of Harvard College in Harvard’s business is somewhat different.  In parceling out the 1,600 or so places for entering undergraduates each year, Harvard College has to assemble a mix of students who, collectively, do the most to satisfy the sometimes-competing business objectives of (i) maintaining Harvard’s academic bona fides; (ii) ensuring that future world leaders in a range of areas – not exclusively academic – choose to attend Harvard College; and (iii) satisfying other institutional priorities critical to the broader business of Harvard.

The first objective is met by admitting a certain number of truly academically superior candidates, as measured by standardized test scores, grades, class rank and other signifiers of academic achievement.  Harvard needs to fill a large chunk of the class with candidates of this kind, not only to support Harvard’s academic brand but to avoid damaging it by lowering the range of standardized test scores of admitted students, which is published every year.  Accordingly, Harvard makes as many places available for these kinds of candidates as it thinks it can, consistent with meeting objectives (ii) and (iii) above.

The second objective is met by trying to recruit candidates who may be exceptional in other than entirely academic areas (e.g., music, studio art, drama, creative writing, political activism, journalism and athletics) while being academically acceptable.  Harvard College alumni who go on to positions of leadership in areas outside academia are powerful assets to Harvard’s brand, implicitly sending a message that attending Harvard College helped them achieve their success, and broadening Harvard’s reach in our society.

The third objective – satisfying other institutional priorities – leads to a variety of admissions behaviors.  Historically underrepresented minorities are recruited and offered admission under affirmative action because this is seen to be the right thing to do and, perhaps as importantly, it would tarnish Harvard’s brand with important constituencies if Harvard were seen to be a laggard in this area.  Harvard recruits athletes because, rightly or wrongly, sports are an important part of the American university experience (and Harvard’s history) and increase student and alumni loyalty to Harvard while enhancing Harvard’s brand and visibility (in my experience, incidentally, some of the most successful businesspeople are former Ivy League athletes, which suggests that some favoritism in admission to qualified athletes may have merit).  Giving some advantage to legacy applicants increases alumni engagement and, implicitly, donations (by the way, legacy applicants tend to compare favorably on academic qualifications to the overall applicant pool – undoubtedly owing in part to the advantages they’ve enjoyed as children of Harvard graduates – but most are rejected anyway).  Also, legacies are more likely to accept offers of admission, which also enhances Harvard’s brand (since yield is a well-publicized indicator of desirability, and Harvard’s yield is among the highest in the country).

So who loses in this system?  Asians, who are applying in growing numbers but have only a relatively fixed number of slots available to them, because (i) not all are academically exceptional or leaders in other areas; (ii) they are not generally viewed as underrepresented minorities; and (iii) for a variety of reasons, relatively few of them are institutional priorities such as athletes and legacies.  The disadvantaging of Asians is a logical (if unfortunate for the Asians) outcome of actions taken by Harvard in what it sees as its own interest.  Harvard has never made academic superiority the dispositive criterion for admission to Harvard College, because that would be bad for business.