Monday, November 13, 2006

Let you be the judge

Last week's election included a proposal to make Michigan the latest in a series of states to ban affirmative action in college admissions and state hiring. In other words, Proposal 2 directed the State of Michigan to take seriously precisely what its constitution says:
No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of his civil or political rights or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof because of religion, race, color or national origin. The legislature shall implement this section by appropriate legislation.

Despite overwhelming mainstream opposition to the proposal, including Gov Granholm and her challenger, all the local MSM, and statements from major corporations, Proposal 2 passed by the comfortable margin of 58% to 42%. And, for those enamored of polling data, despite day-of poll results showing 49% opposed to, 32% in favor of, eliminating affirmative action.

Over the last couple years, the Detroit Free Press has periodically published opinion pieces on Proposal 2, nearly uniformly hostile to the notion of ending affirmative action. The near absence of countervailing opinion was nearly as striking as the pervasive drum-beat insistence that nothing other than glaring racism illuminated affirmative action's opponents.

Consequently, last March, with a great deal of invaluable help, I submitted, via the Free Press's Guest Editorial process The Principled Case Against Affirmative Action.

To which I recieved not even so much as a rejection note.

In contrast, to pick just one example, Rochelle Riley, one of the Free Press's regular columnists, published Keep This a Diverse State the day before the election. It typifies both the arguments, and their underlying analysis, against Proposal 2.
[In Gratz v. University of Michigan the Supreme Court] upheld the university's right to give greater consideration to underrepresented minorities as long as U-M did so without giving them race points.

Leaving aside the irrelevant and gratuitous ad hominem preceding this para, it appears Ms. Riley has identified a distinction without a difference, yet somehow fails to correctly identify its impact in a zero-sum game.
The court upheld affirmative action because of historic and systemic racism and discrimination in America, traditions that would have kept some college campuses all white, most workplaces Negro-free and an underclass permanent. Consideration is not preference -- no matter how many times the backers of Proposal 2 on today's ballot say it.

Ms. Riley's assertion should be added to the great Nonsense on Stilts pantheon. If "consideration" is all this is about, then there is a very simple fix: eliminate gender and ethnicity information from applications. Then, presuming her implicit charge that college admissions boards are ineradicably racist is true, merit plus chance alone will ensure a diverse outcome.

Unfortunately, that would put her in the position of advocating Proposal 2. So either she favors what she abhors, or it really is about Preference.

Then, after a personal digression which left the door wide open to the conclusion that she was the beneficiary of Preference over Consideration, she leaves us with this:
People like Jennifer Gratz, who sugarcoat with rhetoric inequities in income, education and power between minorities and whites, just don't get it. If voters embrace a proposal that will overturn 30 years of progress, Michigan will lose. Instead of being the heart of the auto industry, it will become the symbol of racial tension.

Young people who already don't want to stay in Michigan will feel affirmed. Families and companies considering relocating might think twice before subjecting their children, their employees to this tense environment.

Perhaps the state could eventually become a white supremacists' haven. They'd feel comfortable here. But I bet all those good people who let it happen will wish they'd chosen different bedfellows.

Opponents to affirmative action are heedless racists.

I'll leave it to you to assess the merits of the Free Press's editorial judgment.

I might be making too much ado about nothing, though. After all, if the voters felt free to put the Free Press on disregard, than, perhaps, so should I.

In related news, the U of M President, Mary Sue Coleman, is threatening to use State of Michigan money to sue the State of Michigan over a voter approved amendment to the Michigan State Constitution forcing the U of M to pay attention to the Michigan State Constituion.

I think we can add this to the already monumental store of evidence that the academy just doesn't get it.


Blogger Bret said...

I'm not generally as opposed to affirmative action as you are (indeed I usually support it), but if the voters of MI feel that strongly, then hey, I agree that the academics ought to get with the program, or better still, they ought to quit, raise money for competing private universities (where they can affirm all the action they like), and live happily ever after.

I also do dislike the fairly bizarre arguments put forth by proponents like the ones you cited. In some fairness though, they're a bit constrained by the state constitution. My argument for it goes something like "it has its downsides, but hey, if we can just get a few more minorities getting used to more intellectually demanding positions, then the culture of learning might be better infused and in a few generations they might be more productive so we might all be better off, or something like that." But with constitutions in the way, that argument doesn't fly since I am clearly and absolutely arguing for preferences. So if I felt strongly enough about it, I might twist myself into an illogical pretzel and resort to ad hominem as well. I would hope I wouldn't do that, but it's hard to predict what one might do when overly passionate about things.

November 13, 2006 5:20 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'm not sure if this is true in England, but we have a real problem with studying and academic achievement being defined as "white" and thus not authentically black.

But there also seems to be very solid research suggesting that affirmative action doesn't increase the number of minorities (other than women) entering academia, but it does promote them to more difficult schools where they have lower graduation rates.

November 13, 2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

That was Bret above, not Brit, which vowel confusion might have prompted David's reply.

But indeed it is the same in England: universities are peopled by middle-class whites and asians, not blacks.

As far as I'm aware though, the only affirmative action taken by the top universities (Oxbridge, Durham, Bristol etc) is to try to bias in-take in favour of comprehensive (state-funded) schools over private schools, since a massively disproportionate number of undergratuates that achieve the required A-level grades come from the latter.

There's no racial element, but in theory more comprehensive students = more blacks. I don't know if that is in fact what has happened.

Even that policy is controversial, however, since it is not clear that it doesn't abandon a strict meritocracy.

November 14, 2006 1:29 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

A few years ago, there was an outbreak of a particularly nasty dinoflagellate in North Carolina. After some personally risky investigative work, a teacher of aquatic biology at North Carolina State University identified the criminal, Pfiesteria.

This reseacher was a woman.

State is my alma mater. Back in 1962, there were no women teachers or students there. No black ones, either. For that matter, there wasn't an aquatic biologist.

Now there are. All done without affirmative action.

November 14, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "All done without affirmative action."


So in your apparently parallel universe there is no affirmative action anywhere?

Interesting. Because in my universe, there is affirmative action at many schools. That could plausibly affect the enrollment choices made by other schools - even those that don't directly implement affirmative action.

November 14, 2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger David said...

Bre/it: Sorry for the confusion.

November 14, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You have to be a really, really low achiever to be denied admission to good ol' Cow College.

Once they dropped the bans against women and blacks, anybody could get in who had the money.

November 14, 2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


But there also seems to be very solid research suggesting that affirmative action doesn't increase the number of minorities ... but it does promote them to more difficult schools where they have lower graduation rates.

Which is not only precisely true, but it also points out the beauty of federalism.

Several years ago, California banned affirmative action. There was lots of noise about how officially aggrieved minority group admission rates plummeted at the prestige universities.

There was far less noise made about the surge in admission rates for officially un-aggrieved minority groups (read: Asian Americans) at those schools.

Most astonishing, and disgusting, of all though, practically all AA advocates failed to note that the graduation rate for African Americans increased, because they are now going to schools better matched to their preparation.

Note to AAites: admission criteria are there for a reason.

There are many reasons to be opposed to AA, but certainly chief among them is that it simply does not work.

Once upon a time, I believed the Constitution should be read flexibly.

The older I get (and the more I learn from David), however, the more strict-constructionist I have become.

If AA is so wonderful, then pass a constitutional amendment adding it to the contract between the government and the people.

Otherwise, pay attention to the contract.

David also mentioned that AA had some impact getting women into university. As it turns out, the School of Nursing at Oakland University here in Michigan was pulling out all the AA stops to get men into the program. Apparently some people are offended and/or surprised that the classes run at something over 98% female.

To no avail. Can't admit those who don't apply.

November 15, 2006 12:08 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "AA advocates failed to note that the graduation rate for African Americans increased ... "

Let's say you admit half as many of some group, taking the most qualified half. Then we would indeed expect that the rate of graduation would increase, but the total number of graduates from the group could easily still decrease. In which case, eliminating AA would be a bad thing, not a good thing.

In other words, the more exclusive the admissions criteria, a larger percentage will actually graduate, but more people are, well, excluded.

November 15, 2006 9:30 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Having spent a lifetime working with people, some of whom came out of elite schools and some who didn't, I don't put any value in the name of the institution on the sheepskin.

They all have to take the same bar exam once they've been graduated and, as I understand it, all qualified lawyers are deemed in law to be equally qualified.

November 15, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Let's say you admit half as many of some group, taking the most qualified half. Then we would indeed expect that the rate of graduation would increase, but the total number of graduates from the group could easily still decrease.

That analysis is incorrect. The total number of African Americans attending college remained unchanged. Far more of them attended less prestigious universities, where their preparation was commensurate with the admission standards.

So, rather than dropping out of Berkeley, they are graduating from Cal State LA.

Which would you rather have?

November 15, 2006 11:23 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

So at least as many blacks are still graduating from Berkeley?

If even one more would graduate from Berkeley, I'd accept a hundred dropping out.

November 16, 2006 8:18 AM  
Blogger David said...

If even one more would graduate from Berkeley, I'd accept a hundred dropping out.

Why in the world would you strike that bargain? How much difference can an alma mater make? At best, it gets you one job.

November 16, 2006 7:11 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

If even one more would graduate from Berkeley, I'd accept a hundred dropping out.

That sounds like an awful lot of unnecessary wastage to me.

Why not apply admission standards evenhandedly, and let the students attend where they are best suited?

November 17, 2006 8:06 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Well, maybe 100 to 1 is a bit too much.

The theory is that by dragging at least a few more individuals of each minority group to more challenging positions at every level society, it will pull the friends, family, children, etc. of that individual along with them, better integrating that minority and causing them to be more productive with society benefitting.

The idea that blacks might as well attend only 3rd class schools so they'll have higher graduation rates but then (without AA) will have a hard time getting jobs, or if they do get jobs, will be low-paying, just doesn't sound optimal to me - for blacks or society as a whole.

I understand and agree with your argument, that according to admissions criteria, they're not as prepared and that probably mostly explains why the drop out rate is higher. What I don't agree with, is that a higher drop-out rate is necessarily all that catastrophic. After dropping out of a first tier school, you can always go to a second tier school and still graduate.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

November 17, 2006 11:44 AM  

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