Michigan By The Numbers (cont.)

In the immediately preceding post I began my discussion of discrimination by the numbers by quoting from a “Q&A re University of Michigan Admissions Policies” provided by Michigan on its web site of legal materials regarding its affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court.

Because I first had to check with daughter Jessie about the meaning of “probability” in this context (well, I told you I was no arithmetician), I did not quote the second paragraph of Michigan’s “A,” which follows. (The “Q,” recall, was “Does the University’s consideration of race hurt a white student’s chances of getting into the University?”).

William Bowen and Derek Bok, in their book “The Shape of the River,” look at the nationwide statistics concerning admissions to selective universities. They determined that even if all selective universities used a race-blind admissions system, the probability of being admitted for a white student would go only from 25 percent to 26.2 percent.

First, note (to repeat my argument from the previous post), the question of whether racial preferences hurt a white student’s chances of acceptance is not at all the same as asking whether racial preferences are racial discrimination, and the degree of impact on a white’s students chances is not the measure of how much discrimination is involved.

Second, before taking a closer look at the Bowen/Bok argument that preferences have a trivial impact on a white student’s chances, I should caution you against assuming that their numbers are correct. Two careful students of this issue, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, argue convincingly that they are not in a long review essay in the June 1999 UCLA Law Review.

Bowen and Bok minimize the magnitude of racial preferences at the highly selective schools. At the same time, however, they stress the calamitous reductions in minority enrollments that would result from a race-blind process. The two arguments are simply incompatible.


These dire enrollment estimates are of little relevance to the current debate, however, because they depend on a peculiar and indefensible definition of a “race-neutral” policy as one that admits students purely on the basis of their standardized test scores. No proponent of race-neutral or color-blind admissions advocates this. Neither the Hopwood decision nor Proposition 209 or Initiative 200 bars admissions officials from taking social class and other extra-academic variables into account, even when those variables are correlated with race and disproportionately benefit African-American applicants.

In fact, it is odd that the authors suddenly should have made such an assumption. In a separate discussion, when they sought to minimize the extent of racial preferences involved in current admissions policies, they acknowledged the importance of other criteria in the admissions process — athletic and musical ability, for instance, as well as socioeconomic disadvantage and leadership skills.[66] The assumption that elite schools rely on more than just test scores and grades in making admissions decisions is obviously correct. Bowen and Bok thus mislead the reader when they rely solely on SAT scores to estimate changes in enrollment in the absence of racial preferences.

O.K. So you shouldn’t assume the Bowen/Bok numbers are correct. But since Michigan quoted them, let’s set skepticism aside and assume for the sake of argument that they are correct, or at least useful. Let’s also make another leap and assume that Bowen/Bok’s national numbers apply to Michigan. What do they tell us?

According to B&B’s national numbers, “a white student” has a 25% probability of being admitted to a selective college under the current regime of race preferences, but under a “race-blind” system that probability would increase “only” to 26.2%. Thus, based on these numbers, for every thousand applicants to a selective college, 12 white, Asian, or non-preferred minority students are rejected only because of their race or ethnicity. Applying those numbers to Michigan’s 25,000 applicants every year to its freshman class, Michigan rejects 300 applicants a year based exclusively on race or ethnicity.

Is that number large or small? Do those 300 students (or however many it is in real life) not have a valid claim of racial discrimination simply because they are a small percentage (1.2% according to B&B) of the total applicant pool? (Of course, they are a larger percentage of the white/Asian/non-preferred minority pool, but that’s getting down into the fine print.) If selective colleges began “taking religion into account,” as logically they must if they believe what they say about diversity, and 300 students were excluded because they were Jewish, would the American Jewish Committee still file a brief supporting Michigan, or would it say, with B&B and Michigan, that, oh well, it’s “only” 300?

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