To read the arguments of one’s opponents is to get a sense of their minds. Take, for example, the arguments in The Nation about racial preferences cases recently argued at the U.S. Supreme Court: “Make No Mistake, the Supreme Court Will Kill Affirmative Action,” by Elie Mystal, The Nation’s “justice correspondent.”
We signal our biases with the words we use. My side uses the term racial preferences, because the aspect of the policy we care about is how it works — that it selects individuals by race. Mystal uses the term “affirmative action” because the aspect of the policy he cares about is its intended result.
This is a non sequitur, a statement that does not follow from the premises. The writer, an attorney and graduate of Harvard University, ought to know this.
Mystal is writing in a partisan magazine, which lets him insinuate that his opponents are racists. “White conservatives,” he says, “have worked tirelessly to make college admissions a little easier for mediocre white children.” Think about that. Would any sensible person work tirelessly to pursue a lawsuit all the way to the US Supreme Court in order to make college admissions a little easier for mediocre children?
His next assertion is that ending racial preferences “won’t help Asian American students.” Really? “I know that,” he writes, “because the specific concerns of that community hardly even came up during the marathon five hours of Supreme Court oral argument.”
This is a non sequitur, a statement that does not follow from the premises. The writer, an attorney and graduate of Harvard University, ought to know this, and if he does not, the editors of The Nation ought to know it. It seems they don’t. After this, Mystal goes on:
Ryan Park, the solicitor general of North Carolina (whose parents come from South Korea), pointed out that UNC actually admits AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] students at a higher rate than African American students, which he called a “peculiar result” for those who think that the university’s race-conscious admissions program benefits black kids to the detriment of AAPI kids. Neither Strawbridge nor any of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court had an answer for this. They just moved on like the raw facts didn’t matter.
This raw fact doesn’t matter if what you care about is the equal treatment of individuals.
Consider some more raw facts. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which uses racial preferences, the undergraduates divide as follows:
- 60% White
- 10% Asian
- 8% Black
- 8% Hispanic
- 6% International
- 5% Two or more races
At Harvard, which uses racial preferences, undergrads divide this way:
- 38% White
- 21% Asian
- 12% international
- 11% Hispanic
- 9% Black
- 8% Two or more
At my alma mater, the University of Washington in Seattle, which been legally forbidden to use racial preferences for more than 20 years, the undergrads divide this way:
- 42% White
- 24% Asian
- 15% International
- 7% Hispanic
- 7% Two or more races
- 3% Black
At the University of California, Berkeley, which has also been forbidden to use racial preferences for more than 20 years, the undergrads divide this way:
- 36% Asian
- 24% White
- 16% Hispanic
- 13% International
- 6% Two or more races
- 2% Black
Each of these institutions is racially diverse, but in different proportions. The share of black students at UW-Seattle, 3%, is less than half the share at UNC-Chapel Hill, 8%. But the population of Washington is 4.5% black and of North Carolina, 21% black. The population of North Carolina is 3% Asian, and of Washington, 10% Asian.
Regarding fair treatment of individuals, these numbers don’t prove anything. You cannot prove fairness to individuals with the statistics of groups.
But is the admissions policy fair to individuals at any of these places? How would one know?
Here are more numbers: the percentage of students chronically absent from school (defined as missing 10% or more of the days in a school year) in the San Francisco Unified School District (thanks to Marginal Revolution). The figures, by ethnicity, in the 2019–20 school year:
- 38% African American
- 34% Pacific Islander
- 34% American Indian
- 24% Hispanic
- 12% Filipino
- 13% Multiracial
- 9% White
- 4% Asian
In San Francisco, the students of some racial groups, on average, are in school more than others. That might be an important reason why the racial makeup of college admissions is different from the racial makeup of the general population. Still, regarding fair treatment of individuals these numbers don’t prove anything. You cannot prove fairness to individuals with the statistics of groups.
Final note: Mystal points out that Harvard’s policy of legacy admissions, which is a preference for applicants with a relative who attended Harvard, is not being challenged at the Supreme Court. Legacy admissions are 15% at Harvard, and in the recent past have been more than double that. I agree with Mystal that Harvard ought to end legacy admissions, not because they disproportionately benefit one race — his reason — but because they bestow a benefit that is unearned and tend to perpetuate an aristocracy.