Creative Destruction

December 6, 2006

Affirmative Action: How much does it cost whites?

Filed under: Race and Racism — Ampersand @ 8:20 am

[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:

Admission rates for white students, with and without affirmative action
SAT score Actual rate
of admission
for blacks
Actual rate
of admission
for whites
Rate of
admission
for whites if
AA didn’t exist
1500+ 100% 63% 62.7%
1450-1499 75% 51.1% 50.8%
1400-1449 69.6% 39.9% 39.8%
1350-1399 80% 30.7% 30.8%
1300-1349 64.6% 25% 25.4%
1250-1299 73.9% 22.6% 23.8%
1200-1249 60% 19.3% 20.6%
1150-1199 55.5% 18.7% 20.9%
1100-1149 46.2% 13.3% 16.2%
1050-1099 40.6% 12.4% 15.5%
1000-1049 35.4% 9.6% 11.7%
<1000 17% 3.3% 6.7%

(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.]

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18 Comments »

  1. Ummmm…OK, so what I get from the above data is that it’s only the POOR white kids getting totally screwed. Whew! I was beginning to think this whole affirmative action thing was unfair.

    Also, looking at the numbers, we’re still left with a much higher admission rate for minorities than for whites. Still the very definition of institutionalized racism.

    Ampersand: “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.”

    Nice pre-emptive assumption. Forgive any typos I might be making, it’s just so damn hard to type with this white sheet on! Your guess is false, and silly. I’m all for AA – for poor PEOPLE. Besides, if, as so many pro-AA folks are prone to whimper, whites really are SOOOO rich and blacks are SOOOOO poor, then wouldn’t AA based on income (or, more accurately, regional per capita income) be somewhat of a de facto race-based program?

    Comment by ebbtide — December 6, 2006 @ 9:51 pm | Reply

  2. Ummmm…OK, so what I get from the above data is that it’s only the POOR white kids getting totally screwed.

    Well, low SAT score kids, but yeah, that’ll mostly be the poor ones. I noticed that too.

    I just asked over at Alas If he had the figures for black admissions if there was no AA. I suspect it’s the the high SAT (and probably RICH) black ones who benefit.

    Sort of a reverse Robin Hood effect.

    Comment by Daran — December 6, 2006 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  3. As has been explained on this post and on many discussions on Alas (sometimes with unsupported claims, though) AA, as whole, is more complex than “Blacks given preference” which is just one part of AA.

    Other parts are legacy AA’s (as Amp correctly points out, many of these are Anti-Semitic by origin and favored Whites), urban vs. rural AA, and all sorts of myriad factors (been a boy scout etc.) that affect admission in addition to pure test scores that “highly selective” colleges employ.

    Whites do benefit from many selective measures, but given Amp opposes legacy AA, and AA for Whites* in general while supporting AA for Blacks, this claim:

    it seems to me, is that it offers a really substantial benefit to blacks at a tiny cost to whites.

    Is not supported by this data, and is dishonest to boot for him to claim that. Elimination of all AA would benefit of Asian-Americans and Jews most. Whites, as the data shows, not really that much. Which would be perfectly fine by me, btw.

    * Like he admitted here in comment #15.

    Comment by Tuomas — December 6, 2006 @ 10:26 pm | Reply

  4. Oh yeah, that does say SAT scores doesn’t it (although I guess could try to make a correlation between wealth, public school quality, and SAT scores, but that would be a stretch)? LOL…long day…read that wrong….

    “I just asked over at Alas If he had the figures for black admissions if there was no AA. I suspect it’s the the high SAT (and probably RICH) black ones who benefit.”

    Curious about that myself….

    Comment by ebbtide — December 6, 2006 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  5. I’m curious about that too. But I wrote that post three years ago, and I no longer have the article at hand or fresh in my mind, so I can’t remember if it gave those figures or not. When I have time, I’ll look up the article again.

    Comment by Ampersand — December 7, 2006 @ 5:05 am | Reply

  6. This table really overstates the harm, because it looks only at the odds of being admitted to a selective school.

    Almost every student with any meaningful chance of being admitted to a selective college, is capable of gaining admission rather easily, to a minimally selective four year degree granting institution.

    In most states, there is at least one community college in the state which will admit any high school graduate, and from which four year colleges routinely accept transfer students who have completed two years of college level course work satisfactorily. Many states have at least one open admissions four year college (in Colorado, that would be Metro State).

    Affirmative action in higher education is overwhelmingly an issue of institutional prestige and not access to education. White students impacted by affirmative action may end up at a school slightly less prestigious. Minority students who benefit from affirmative action typically end up at a school much more prestigious than they might otherwise have been admitted to. Access to education is really only implicated at the very bottom of the system.

    It is not at all clear that affirmative action is preventing any meaningful number of white students from access to education at that lowest threshold.

    I have very little sympathy for someone, who in my Colorado context, would not go to college at all if they could not get into the University of Colorado, but could get into Metropolitan State College, but chose not to go because Metro State was less prestigious.

    Metro State admits anyone who has earned a GED, anyone who has graduated from high school and is twenty years of age or older, and anyone under twenty years old who has graduated from high school and has certain test scores or grade/test score combinations.

    The test scores for those under age 20 who graduated from high school are an ACT English subscore of 18 or above and a reading subscore of 17 or above (or an SAT verbal score of 440 or above). The ACT scores are roughly at the 10th percentile.

    The combined index for someone under age 20 who graduated from high school at Metro State allows consideration on an individual basis of someone with a 2.0 high school GPA and combined SATs of 930 (almost everyone guaranteed admission based on a combined index already qualifies on test scores alone).

    Community colleges in the state are even more liberal in their admissions policies.

    The only people potentially shut out of a four year college admission by affirmative action in Colorado are those who graduated from high school are in the bottom 10th of English language ability on standardized tests, who are also in roughly the bottom 10-20 percent of their graduating high school class and have non-verbal test scores that aren’t extraordinarily better than their English/verbal test scores. Sending these individuals to a four year college at a state expenses is questionable. Requiring them to spend a couple of years learning how limited their prospects are in the real world isn’t unreasonable.

    Comment by ohwilleke — December 7, 2006 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  7. Ohwilleke, you are quite right – it is eminently possible to work through the harm done to whites and Asians by racial preferences.

    As far as I am aware, that the victim of a moral wrong can remediate some of the harm with work does not mitigate the moral wrong itself.

    Comment by Robert — December 7, 2006 @ 6:10 pm | Reply

  8. “It is not at all clear that affirmative action is preventing any meaningful number of white students from access to education at that lowest threshold.”

    That’s fine, as long as by “meaningful number” you mean “any”. If just one white student, or black student, or any other student, is denied access to anything because of race, then an act of racism has been committed.

    “I have very little sympathy for someone, who in my Colorado context, would not go to college at all if they could not get into the University of Colorado, but could get into Metropolitan State College, but chose not to go because Metro State was less prestigious.”

    Well then, I guess its a good thing that it is an education, rather than your sympathy that they seek.

    “Community colleges in the state are even more liberal in their admissions policies.”

    This comment would be funny if I didn’t think you were serious. It’s bad enough that your post suggests that white students victimized by AA should just accept admission to a lower-tier school. Now you bolster your argument by noting that community college is even easier to get into? Wow. Let me ask you, would you give this same advice to black students if they were forced to settle as a result of racism?

    Comment by ebbtide — December 7, 2006 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  9. 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.”

    That is true, in one sense, that there are probably hundreds or thousands of white applicants who are more qualified than the black applicant who got in through affirmative action (i.e. as opposed to those who would have got in in a race-blind system).

    Of course, in the fact of the matter is that not all of those more-qualified students would have been able to get in at the same time, so in reality it is not hundreds or thousands of whites who are exvluded.

    In essence, Lind is saying that hundreds or thousands of whites who are rejected have test scores, etc. that would have got them in if they were black, and he is implying that they all would have gotten in if not for affirmative action. The statement is true, the implication is not.

    Comment by Glaivester — December 8, 2006 @ 2:42 am | Reply

  10. By the way, the thing I find the most offensive about the affirmative action case from 3 or 4 years back (Grutter, I think it was) was the hypocrisy and dishonesty in it. The decision was essentially that you could use affirmative action provided that you were vague enough about how you did it that the way the decision was made could not be traced. That is, the Court affirmative action is okay as long as no one knows how it works, but having a system that actually could be understood by an outside observer is verboten.

    Comment by Glaivester — December 8, 2006 @ 2:45 am | Reply

  11. fix italics?

    Comment by Glaivester — December 9, 2006 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  12. Will the cost of affirmative action to whites still be low when they are a minority in america? Won’t affirmative action slots expand?
    See Steve Sailers:
    “If reform is needed, it had better come soon. For at present non-Hispanic whites cast four out of every five American votes. After another generation or two, the electoral arithmetic will be very different — and proposing reform will be like asking retirees to cut back on Social Security.”

    The Future of Racial Quotas: The Coming Diversity Crack-Up http://www.isteve.com/American_Conservative_Diversity_Crack-Up.htm

    Quotable:

    La Griffe Du Lions estimates of the monetary cost of AA to whites at $1,900 , by using IQ to estimate the hypothetical pre-tax income of people in an AA free world.
    “Affirmative Action: The Robin Hood Effect”
    http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/robinhood.htm

    But… he doesn’t

    Comment by pjgoober — December 9, 2006 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

  13. But.. he doesn’t take into account the effect of whites people living in sparsely settled states with low costs of living.

    Comment by pjgoober — December 9, 2006 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

  14. […] This compensations is called “affirmative action”, or “positive discrimination”. It is argued that it doesn’t hurt Whites as a group. This is strictly speaking true, depending on how one defines group. […]

    Pingback by Watch the hands, people « Creative Destruction — December 9, 2006 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  15. Let’s try a retrograde version of the unasked question (which seems to be “How much longer before AA is gone?”). Starting with the day AA was instituted and working back, how much did the prejudicial practices of college admissions hurt minorities AND women? Have those numbers now been returned to zero?

    Comment by ORF — October 31, 2007 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  16. I know the data compiled out there is often limited to the blacks v. white analysis. This analysis no longer valid or reliable in the 21st century.

    The USA now has a large concentration of hispanics (14%) and asians (4%) who seem to be performing quite differently in society as a whole. Remember, most asians and hispanics come from immigrant families who came here more recently than blacks.

    An admission dean at a good lawschool told me scores of asians in the LSAT were quite superior to whites and they had to limit the amount of asians who were admitted to diversity the student body.

    I would love to see a full analysis of the different groups, not only white v. blacks. I have heard a lot of static and noise on this topic, I have rarely seen real data.

    I am a firm believer in AA but I must admit I have a very low tolerance level to a fifth generation kid who complains and wants favors when another kid here as a second generation is working hard and getting good grades.

    Comment by Vilon — November 2, 2007 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  17. not all blacks are born in the usa. some of the best foreign students are blacks from africa, often from more privileged backgrounds. i once heard that “native” blacks in america resented the haughtiness of the african born blacks. can’t generalize, of course. the american blacks claim that the african blacks look down on the american blacks. i suppose there is humbleness and arrogance on both continents.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 2, 2007 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  18. I just wanted to thank this blog for providing me with the Goodwin Liu calculations/analysis. I am a junior in high school trying to write a research paper on how affirmative action is beneficial to America, and was looking for figures to prove that the cost of discrimination against whites with affirmative action is little. I happened to stumble on your blog. Absoultely perfect for what I needed.

    Comment by Jon — December 19, 2007 @ 9:45 pm | Reply


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