Affirmative action is good, but it’s also a cover for racial discrimination

Affirmative action is a highly controversial subject.  Its supporters and opponents are dead set in their positions, and it’s nearly impossible to have a productive conversation about the topic.  Naturally, I’d like to add my two cents.

I hadn’t thought about affirmative action for a long time.  Obviously, it might have affected me when I was applying to college at the beginning of the 90s, but since I ended up getting admitted to Stanford, my first choice school, I never really paid it much attention.

A week or two ago, I ran across a Priceonomics blog post that asked, “Do Elite Colleges Discriminate Against Asians?”  A study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and his collaborator Alexandria Radford looked at the topic using 1997 college admissions data and concluded that they did.  Among other things, Espenshade and Radford found that:

  • For any given SAT score, Asian students have the lowest chance of being accepted
  • Based on a statistical model, Asian applicants have 67% lower odds of admission than white applicants with comparable test scores
  • Being Asian is the equivalent of a 140-point handicap on the SAT (based on the old 1600 point scale) in comparison to white student.  In contrast, Hispanic students got the equivalent of a 130-point bonus, while African-American students got a 310-point bonus

This data shows historical discrimination, but what about today?  Ron Unz, the founder of The American Conservative, compared admissions rates for Asians at the Ivy League colleges versus Caltech, an elite science and engineering institution that practices race-blind admissions.

In 1990, the Ivys had an Asian enrollment percentage between 7% (Dartmouth) and 17% (Yale).  Caltech was at 22%.  Fast-forward to 2011, and the numbers had radically diverged.  Caltech was now at 39%, while the Ivys were in a tight cluster between 13-18%.  Caltech admitted more than twice as many Asian students as any Ivy League university.

Many Asian Americans see this discrimination and blame affirmative action.  But they’re wrong to do so.  Affirmative action doesn’t cause discrimination against Asians.  Rather, affirmative action is the fig leaf used to justify anti-Asian discrimination in favor of whites.

In 1997, the University of California system was forced to abandon affirmative action because of Prop 209.  Here’s what happened:

Here is a table,
broken down by race and ethnicity, of the admission of California
residents to the University of California from 1997 through 2007.
(HatTip to Ed Chin) It shows that in 1997, the last freshman class
admitted before the elimination of racial preferences by Prop. 209 in
1996, 18.6% of the admitted freshmen were “underrepresented minorities.” 3.8% of the admitted freshmen were black.

In the freshman class of 2007, “underrepresented minorities” made up 22.9% of those offered admission, and 3.6% were black.

In other words, even after the end of affirmative action, the proportion of underrepresented minorities actually increased.  The proportion of Asians also increased (there’s a reason that UCLA’s nickname is “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians”).  The only group that saw a decrease was the white student population.

Here’s my opinion:

Affirmative action, in the abstract, is a good thing.  While it may seem unfair to qualified white students to lose their place at certain colleges to underrepresented minorities, I’m sure that nearly 100% of those minority students would trade in their preference for a life free of racial discrimination against them.

It’s not a perfect tool; one of the problems was that simply admitting underrepresented minorities without provide extra help mean that many failed to earn their degrees.  In fact, the end of affirmative action actually coincided with improved graduation rates for minorities.  On the other hand, if we so often tout college education as the key to a better life, it seems like rank hypocrisy to tell people that the same problems they’re trying to escape by going to college are going to prevent them from getting admitted.

The danger with affirmative action is that it is implemented in an opaque and easily abused way.  Essentially, admissions offices can do whatever they want, so long as they don’t set quotas.  Yet eliminating quotas actually makes the process less fair.  A quota is clear and something that can be discussed.  If a university sets an upper limit on minority students, at least it’s being honest, and its policies can be debated based on evidence.  The same holds true for an explicity SAT penalty or bonus.

This kind of explicit discrimination would make the absurdity of anti-Asian discrimination more obvious.  No university admissions officer would say, “We’re going to set a quota on the Asian kids because too many of them do well in school, and we want to make sure we keep their numbers down,” yet that is exactly what they’re doing.  It hardly seems possible that the Ivys would cluster so tightly in the 13-18% range without some kind of collusion.  Similarly, saying “We’re going to penalize the Asian kids 140 points on the SAT” would be tantamount to admitting, “Those Asians do better on all the tests, the same tests we use to predict college success.  So we’ll change the goalposts on them.”

Moreover, portraying this discrimination as part of affirmative action directs Asian anger at Hispanics and African-Americans–even though those minorities are not the ones setting the policy or taking up most of the admissions slots.  Intentional or not, it is diabolical.

On a personal level, I’m going to start needing to think about this issue again in less than a decade.  I have two kids who will be in college by then.  When they apply, how should they categorize themselves on their applications?  They are half-Chinese, and half-Puerto Rican.  Does that make them Asian or Hispanic?  Are they attractive to Ivy League universities, or undesirables that need to be screened out?  What about my nephew, who is half-Caucasian and half-Puerto Rican?

There aren’t any easy answers.  But finding the answers will be easier if universities are honest about the true nature of their policies.

4 thoughts on “Affirmative action is good, but it’s also a cover for racial discrimination

  1. I agree that the data shows there's some level of discrimination against Asians in Ivy League admission rates, but I don't think SAT scores are a good way to measure candidacy.

    As a personal anecdote, my (Chinese) parents had me take a practice SAT test every weekend from 7th grade onwards. I did end up with a pretty high score, but I probably would have fulfilled my parents' Harvard dreams if I had been playing football instead. Probably would have been more fun too.

    A better way to measure the level of discrimination against Asians in Ivy League admissions would be to score each candidate on the full set of criteria prior to seeing the person's name or race.

  2. I agree that SAT scores are in insufficient metric, but the UC admissions data reflects overall admissions, not SAT scores. The admissions rate for Asians immediately improved following the institution of race-blind admissions.

    I'm sorry to hear about how your parents forced you to take the SAT practice tests every week. That definitely seems like overkill. Especially since studies show that "Tiger Mom" parenting doesn't work.

  3. Chris,

    Race/demographics are normally optional now on college applications. If you're worried about it, choose not to answer and let merit do the talking.


  4. Anonymous


    I doubt your strategy will work. The admissions committee likely smart enough to assume that children with the last name of Yeh are Asian.

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