[This post was originally written and posted in January of 2003, but it got dropped from the database in some blogmove or other, so I’m reposting it now.]
One of the benefits of affirmative action in college admissions, it seems to me, is that it offers a really substantial benefit to blacks at a tiny cost to whites. Not everyone agrees with my rosy view; Michael Lind, for example, once wrote that “in order to accommodate a few less-qualified black students, the University of Texas Law School, like other leading schools, must turn down hundreds or thousands of academically superior white students every year.”
So does the existence of affirmative action bring about a substantial harm to white students applying to selective colleges? Goodwin Liu, in the March 2002 issue of the Michigan Law Review, argues that the cost to whites is actually quite small; and the tiny number of whites who actually are rejected because of affirmative action policies are the least likely people to sue.
Liu calculated how much the odds of whites being admitted to five highly selective universities would change if affirmative action programs did not exist:
|SAT score||Actual rate
for whites if
AA didn’t exist
(The data on this table comes from pages 1075 and 1078 of the March 2002 Michigan Law Review.)
There’s obviously some statistical noise going on here (at the highest levels of SAT scores, Liu’s numbers indicate that whites have a microscopically better chance with affirmative action programs in place). But overall, the trend is clear: at combined SAT scores of 1300 and above, the presence or absence of affirmative action makes no significant difference at all to the odds of a white student being admitted. At lower scores, the difference exists, but is tiny. A white student with a combined score below 100 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.
But what about those famous anti-affirmative-action lawsuits? Well, virtually all those suing are whites like Allan Bakke (of the precedent-setting Bakke case). Baake didn’t get into Davis Medical School, but sixteen minority students from poor backgrounds did get in with the help of Davis’ affirmative action program. (Minority students from middle-class or wealthier backgrounds did not qualify for Davis’ affirmative action program). Baake, deciding that he didn’t get in because those darn colored people had taken his seat, sued, claiming that he had been “barred… by reason of race alone – from attending the school.” Despite Baake’s eventual court victory, his claim is untrue; Baake didn’t qualify because he wasn’t good enough, and even if there had been no affirmative action program at Davis, he would have been rejected.
As Liu argues, the very few white students who are genuinely rejected because of affirmative action are the least likely to sue.
A white applicant who seeks admission to a particular school, but is displaced by affirmative action, is necessarily one who has come very close to being admitted. If an applicant of that caliber were to apply to several comparable schools, it seems improbable that she would be rejected in every instance. An applicant who is truly close to the cusp of admission at one institution will more than likely fall on the other side of th cusp at one of the other institutions to which she applied. Such an applicant makes an unlikely plaintiff. If, for example, a white student applies to ten selective schools and, though rated highly at each school, is rejected by all but one or two, the applicant may have legitimate grounds for complaining that she was displaced as a result of affirmative action. But because she has gained admission to one or two schools of comparable quality, her incentive (and, I suspect, psychological urge) to file a lawsuit is considerably attenuated. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in 1973, Allan Bakke failed to gain admission not only to the Davis Medical School, but also to ten other medical schools to which he applied. Bakke, like most white applicants and plaintiffs, was not close to the cusp. (Page 1094).
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.
If I were ruler of the world, affirmative action admissions would be the least of the racial remedies we would see; it is certainly far short of what is needed to fight the effects of past and present race discrimination. Nevertheless, in some ways affirmative action admissions are an ideal case: they provide a greatly increased chance of attending the best colleges for blacks, at an incredibly tiny cost to the chances for white applicants. Given the extremely modest nature of AA, my guess is that anyone who finds AA to be too extreme, would find any substantial program that helps blacks too much to ask for.
Update: Sisyphus digs up another piece of trivia about the Michigan case currently being considered by the Supreme Court: one of the folks suing had a legacy preference when he was attempting to get into Michigan. Also, she points out something I didn’t know (but should have guessed) – a century or so ago, legacy preferences were sometimes instituted to exclude Jews.
[Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.]