Affirmative Action's (Confusing) Logic

Here’s the thing. Concerning college acceptances (what most of this will center on), it’s not enough to be a minority. You must be an underrepresented minority. What confuses me is the exact meaning of underrepresented.

If affirmative action is all about giving those who’ve been short-changed a leg up, why do asian- and arab-americans (first two that popped into mind, though I’ve probably missed some) not deserve one? Are the “chink” and “terrorist” jokes not enough to register on the discrimination-o-meter?

Ah, but whether a minority group is underrepresented is based on their numbers in a particular population. In the case of college enrollment, it seems their numbers are adequate - in some cases, overrepresentative (something that can be held against them, believe it or not).

But this then penalizes a minority group for making headway into what was previously lonely territory. As soon as they make it to the “Promised Land” (of accurate representation), all support is removed as though they’re now on an equal playing field, when the very reason they got there was AA. If AA is meant to affect social change, this seems like a rather ham-fisted way to do it.

No, I’m not one of these minorities, and yes, I am against affirmative action (or AA as I understand it), but I was nevertheless curious what others might think.

Homeless shelters only give beds to the homeless. That is not the same as saying that they penalize those who own houses.

It may surprise you that many Asian ethnic groups are considered under AA and AA-like policies. People from the Philipines, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries are treated as disadvantaged minorities. I know of at least one graduate fellowship that treats people from these groups as “minorities”, along with Hispanics and black people. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps it has something to do with the history of colonization in these places.

Are Arabs considered a race? Would you consider people like Casey Casem and Ralph Nadar members of the same visibly identifiable group? I don’t know how much this question has to do with the one in the OP, but I’m sure it has something to do with why Arabs aren’t generally targets of AA.


I don’t know what you mean by “adequate”. Adequate by what standards?

In those cases where a minority group is overrepresented, AA targeted to them doesn’t come into play, right? For instance, there are a couple of state universities in Alabama which are predominately black and they give scholarships to white students to increase diversity. In effect, white students are getting some kind of preference at those institutions. Is this unfair seeing as how most universities in this country are predominately white? What about all those black students who are getting looked over in preference for white candidates?


So what it seems like you’re saying is that the playing field will never be equal without AA, and thus AA creates an artificial picture of equality. So is this the fault of AA or society as a hold? Which thing are you blaming?

In the biological sciences, the gap between the number of male and female scientists is steadily decreasing. In my own lab, there are more female graduate students than male graduate students. At the undergrad institution where I work, there are more female biology majors than male biology majors. But in the faculty, there are only three female professors out of a faculty of twenty. Are females still overrepresented in the big picture? I don’t know. Would dismantling AA result in fewer female biology majors? How about fewer female scientists? I don’t think so but I’m not sure. Certaintly the situation is much more complicated than what you’re making it out to be.

This paradox is one reason to be leery of AA. Another reason is that AA doesn’t work.

We shouldn’t equate getting into school X with success. The purpose of getting into a school is education. African-American college students have low graduation rates. I believe they are under-represented in science and engineering. Both of these problems are caused by AA, which too often puts individual students into schools where they are less qualified than average.

The right way to level the educational playing field should is to provide fully adequate elementary and high school education in the inner cities. Unfortunately, AA masks the real problem, making it harder to solve. Similarly, social promotion is another way to ignore the problem. Do we help a student by promoting him but not teaching him to read? Of course not.

Economist Thomas Sowell surveyed affirmative action programs in many other countries, programs that may be based on different criteria than the ones used in the US. What he discovered is that once an AA program is in place, it’s extremely difficult to do away with, even though it may be failing in its endeavor. AA has political appeal. So, the US is probably stuck with AA, to everybody’s detriment. :frowning:

Would this guy get affirmative action in America? He is a Latino.

The definition is (or used to be “Spanish Surname”. So, yes. Even Spaniards and their descendants would technically qualify.

I am not familiar with this argument. I’ve heard people say that AA doesn’t adequately address retention and underrepresentation in key fields, but how does AA cause them? How have scholars proven that AA, as opposed to other factors, cause those things?

I think AA only benefits US citizens…so unless he gets the US citizenship, he won’t be affected by the AA programs.

I know of no research or scientific evidence. This argument has particularly been raised by economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell. Both write regular columns. It’s based on their judgment.

It certainly makes sense to me. AA students have much lower than average SAT scores at many colleges. (Colleges try to keep these differences secret, because it’s embarassing.) Below average students get weeded out of the most demanding majors.

E.g., when I started college in 1960, my class had over 100 Physics majors. Only 11 of them graduated with Physics degrees. You can imagine that these 11 students were far above average in academic ability.

However, some of those who got weeded out might have been successful Physics majors at a less demanding school.

First of all, I’m uncomfortable with you saying “much lower” when you’ve just admitted you have to guess at what the difference is. I know there is a difference because of national data on averages and the way AA works. But what constitutes “much lower?”

Second, research has shown that it’s GPAs, not SATs, that are the primary predictor of college success.

But I think I grasp the crux of your argument. Would I be correct if I restated it this way? Blacks (and any underprepared student) will have trouble in “tough” science majors, so we should make sure that underprepared students who want to work in science fields enroll at less-competitive colleges which are better able to meet their needs. Admission policies that allow these students to go to more prestigious schools (and programs) put them at a disadvantage.

But see, I don’t think ending AA would solve the problem. The dearth of black scientists is a pipeline problem, and if we’re going to fix it, the top undergraduate and graduate programs need to be a part of the solution. I’d rather see programs adjust their pedagogy (not rigor) to make up for previous deficiencies, allowing qualified students of any race who have the adequate talent (but disadvantages) to enroll and succeed.

I don’t think that lower graduation rates, by the way, are because AA admits students who aren’t qualified. AA programs which work do not help underqualified student gain admission. They help certain groups of qualified students compete against other qualified students when there is an oversupply of applicants. Top colleges turn away thousands of qualified kids just on the basis of space alone. It’s not that they couldn’t cut it–it’s that there isn’t enough room and they’ve chosen to be even more selective than necessary. AA means that certain qualified students will get special consideration. Anyway, lower retention rates may have more to do with a lack of social support and financial aid and resources than flunking out because AA puts students where they don’t belong.

This is partly my opinion but also my view from the ground, as it were, having worked in one admissions office and now working closely with another.

While I agree with many of your other statements, I’d be interested in reading this research. Granted, GPA measures work ethic moreso than SAT or ACTs (two days of testing vs. four years of work), but how can GPA be an accurate predictor when the classes one elects to take have a great deal to do with GPA?

For instance, I have taken honors classes and AP classes all through HS. I’ve taken a full course load (no study halls ever), and no more than one gym class per year [sub]stupid Illinois…requiring four years of gym…[/sub]. However, when I graduate in May, there will be a few kids up there giving valedictorian speeches who have never taken an Honors or AP class, who may have had three or four study halls, or who may have taken two or three hours of gym a day their senior year. I won’t be, because I picked a demanding class schedule, one which taught me things and though difficut, prepared me for college.

Will these people do better in college than me? Perhaps. Do I feel I’m more prepared because I took more difficult classes? Definitely.

I think GPA is useful in predicting success in college, but it must be looked at with the student’s class schedule in hand, and it also must not be relied upon too heavily.

Among equally qualified students, I have no problem with a college selecting students to be as diverse as they want.

It’s when less qualified (not *un-*qualified) students get accepted over more qualified students for the purposes of diversity that I think people have a problem with.

Do colleges have a set formula for ranking students for acceptance? In other words, do they look at my application, give me a score based on it, and admit as many of the highest ranked people as they have room for?

You wonder about Affirmative Action and why it only applies to blacks and not Chinese, etc? See my post in the thread: “Racism is Pseudo-Intellectual Bunk”. All of this stuff is about the political left advancing on the cause of their adopted victims the blacks. It has little to do with right or wrong, or even what is good for the blacks. It is all about expoiting the blacks position (or lack of it) in life so that they can advance their political agenda.

They are not out to help anyone - not even the blacks.

As perhaps they should. But here is where labeling and treating people by their ancestry is dicey: does a second-generation Japanese have claim to being disadvantaged? Koreans? How about people from historically very poor countries with historically very rich elites (Haiti, Mexico, Brazil). Do we ask which caste they are from?

It would make more sense if it was handled like Financial Aid. Tell us why you specifically are disadvantaged and we’ll go from there. But that won’t sell, because a lot of people know that they as individuals aren’t as deprived as they’d like admissions to believe.

What about non-racial/ethnic minorities? Like…physically disabled folks? :slight_smile:

You tell us. Are they “grouped” for AA purposes?

The students in my school are mostly physically fit. I think maybe we should admit more overweight folk. Oh, and I don’t see many redheads here either.

As long as we have a good, solid scientific/intellectual community, does it matter what the racial percentages are? Nothing says that a community of a certain percentage of all races will be more effective than, say, one of mostly asians or latinos. I seriously doubt that, in this day and age, most colleges will discount an intelligent minority’s application simply because he/she is a minority. There are many, many colleges in this country- if one decides to be racist, there are plenty more to choose from that would love to have smart students of mixed racial backgrounds.

Every college whose admissions practices I’ve learned about does this. I can’t imagine a college that would be so foolish as to look at GPA alone without factoring in what courses are being taken. At the more prestigious colleges, people who took the easiest route aren’t going to get in anyway, regardless of GPA, so while these people may compete with you for a valedictorian title, they aren’t going to be in your freshman class skewing the correlation between college grades and high school grades.

As for the research, I can’t cite stuff done here because we haven’t published it, and I’m unwilling to tell you how much more we (as a consequence) weight GPAs because we’re all a little supeona-shy around here. However, UC has published some of their work on the web. What they’ve found is that subject matter tests like the SAT II are the best predictor, but HSGPA is clearly better than the SAT I.

This is probably where the problem lies, in that critics of the admissions process feel that in any group of qualified students, each can be seen as incrementally more or less qualified based solely on academic criteria like the SAT. Many college don’t see it that way. Give me a bunch of applicants; let me figure out which ones can succeed at my college. I still have an oversupply? Okay, I’ll start to “rank” people according to other characteristics, like their leadership, the kinds of classes they took in high school, etc. And I am also going to think about how I can best serve society by both exposing students to a wide variety of worldviews AND preparing producing well-qualified people in all fields. So I may start adding to people’s rank for being an underrepresented gender (men in nursing and education; women in engineering), for being from an unusual place, or for being a member of an underrepresented ethnic group. Remember, all these people are qualified to begin with. There’s just not room for everyone. Rather than draw a strict line based solely on raw grades and/or test scores so I only get the biggest geeks (heh heh), I can decide I want other qualities to be considered in who I admit. Of course, legally there are battles over whether it is okay to use some of those criteria, and we’ve spent a coupla million in legal fees on that little issue already.

So it sort of comes down to what you feel should be counted in what makes a candidate more “qualified” than others. A lot of critics appear to believe test scores are an absolute, and no student with a lower test score should ever be admitted over a candidate with higher scores, regardless of circumstances. I can understand that view, given that we’ve invested a lot of faith in test scores. But many colleges don’t feel that way.

You’ve got the general gist. However, I’m not saying we should make sure that they enroll at less competitive colleges. It should be their choice where to enroll. I’m saying that because AA routinely pushes students into schools that are inappropriate for them, we’re doing them no favor. (This is a general argument. I have no doubt that AA has helped a great many specific individuals. My cousin Dr. december chose to go to medical school in middle age. It’s possible that AA helped her to be accepted, but I have no way of knowing. She’s a fine doctor. BTW one reason she chose to become a doctor is that she got tired of teaching remedial English to unprepared college students. )

Right, I sure didn’t mean to say that ending AA would fix all the problems – only that IMHO it does more harm than good. Since there are many students who’ve been provided defective previous education, I tend to approve any program to make up that deficiency.

However, in the long run, the better approach is fixing the elhi education, rather than have college try to replace what high school should have taught.

That’s what they say. However, in a few cases where comparative SAT scores were made public, the differences were enormous.

The U of Chicago where I went sure didn’t turn away oodles of people, who could have completed a physics BS. IN fact, they probably admitted only a couple of dozen who could.

No doubt there are lots of factors.

Your POV is more factually grounded than mine is, with that background. Would you be able to share relevant information about the schools where you worked, such as differences in aver SAT scores, graduation rates, science and engineering majors, etc.?


Theoretically, no. But the scientific community is composed of human beings and thus subject to the biases concomitant with human beings and their behavior.

Case in point: medical research has been historically biased towards males. Data gathered from predominately male subject pools are typically extrapolated to the entire population, even though females and males often react differently to such things as stress, drug use, and heart disease. Is this bias because researchers tend to be male and that this society is still heavily patriarchial? Maybe, maybe not. Encouraging females to entire the field of medical research may be a way of counteracting this bias.

Science doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to certain members of society. For black Americans, the Tuskeegee experiment is still a fresh wound. And let’s not forget that science has been historically used to perpetuate racism through unscrupulous methodology and flat-out lying. Presently, there are disparities in the way black and white Americans are treated that are separate from class and socioeconomic differences. Training Ph.Ds and MDs to do and apply good science is one way to combat these problems, but it’s not enough. I think having a diverse scientific community–with scientists who come from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds–is the best way to ensure that biases are challenged as soon as they arise.


Re: your question as to whether physically disabled people are grouped for AA purposes…

I’ve not seen evidence of that in the same sense that I’ve seen it in regard to ethnic groupings. (In my college-application-filler-outter experience.)

That is to say, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a “check this box if you have a physical disability” instruction that I equated with an AA technique for picking out minorities. What I’ve seen is questions that ask the applicant to explain any ailments that could affect performance so as to get the prospective student hooked up w/the disabilities services office of said college. Perhaps that question is used as an AA question.

And yeah, in New York State, you can choose to participate in a state program called VESID (Vocational/Educational Services for the Independence of the Disabled, or something approximating that). You get hooked up w/ a counselor & they decide how much tuition and/or textbook money they plan to contribute a semester. This is contigent on decent grades. It’s a sliding scale - I dunno what the cap is.