Playing With Numbers

Playing With Numbers

The Bush Administration’s Civil Rights Commission would like us to believe that affirmative action harms black students by placing them in situations where they can’t keep up.


The Bush Administration’s manipulation by special interests is easiest to see in broadly accessible situations, like a decision to open federal lands to strip mining. It’s harder to grasp when the interest is buried in a mountain of regression analyses, like global warming or the approval of drugs. So let me try to run through some basics. Let’s say you have an exclusive political club of 100 members. Ninety are Whigs. Ten are Tories. Mary, a Whig, is married to Tom, a Tory. After a particularly personalized debate, Mary and Tom get divorced and drop out of the club. This means that 10 percent of the Tories have dropped out, but only about 1 percent of the Whigs. The next day, the Fox Planet Post publishes a breathless story that Tories are failing to thrive at the club in shockingly disproportionate numbers compared with Whigs and that therefore Whigs are clearly the more politically adept.

The problem with the Planet‘s story is that it fails to account for the relationship between rates and real numbers, or percentages and proportions. Moreover, it inflates the significance of the disproportion by assigning a social meaning to the percentages belied by the situation on the ground. It’s not mathematically wrong, in other words, but it’s factually absurd. The Planet chooses to focus on a binarism of Whig and Tory that fails to tell the whole story, or perhaps the most important part of the story. What might the data look like if they examined a full spectrum of reasons for which club members might drop out: i.e., by married versus nonmarried status or by ability to pay alimony versus the hefty club dues?

I say all this to get to the following: The Administration’s Civil Rights Commission–reconstituted with neocons like Abigail Thernstrom–just issued a major report endorsing a 2004 article by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, in which Sander asserts that affirmative action hurts capable but less qualified black students by setting them up for lifelong failure. He starts with a theory that affirmative action actually harms black students by putting them in situations where, supposedly, they can’t keep up. It’s called the “mismatch” hypothesis: To wit, if only these poor lost souls had gone to second-tier schools where they belong, they’d have more self-confidence to compete against comparable second-tier peers, and the world would be a better place. Based on this, the Civil Rights Commission recommends that California publish black bar-exam-passage rates; that the National Academy of Sciences start studying the disparity of black-white graduation rates and that Congress deny federal funding to any law school that does not specifically track the progress of black students.

Sander’s arguments rely on mountains of data analysis, but it’s available to anyone willing to wade through it on the commission’s website. I don’t have space to discuss it in depth, but let me recommend two of the most comprehensive rebuttals: “Does Affirmative Action Reduce the Number of Black Lawyers?” by Ian Ayres and Richard Brooks and “A Systematic Response to Systemic Disadvantage” by David Wilkins, both in Volume 57 of the Stanford Law Review. Meanwhile, in order to illustrate a very tiny but crucial part of this material, let me point to some of the numbers with which Sander is working. In one table illustrating “Black-White Academic Indices at Tier 1 Institutions, 1991 Matriculants” the number of black students in the sample is 147; the number of white students is 1,843, more than ten times more.

Again, let me tease this out: Let’s assume there are ten schools in Tier One. Let’s assume that the nearly 2,000 students in the sample are divided evenly among those ten–rounding it out so that there are 200 at each school; fifteen of whom are black, 185 of whom are white. If five students catch the plague, that’s 2.5 percent of the student body. If we spin it as five white students, then that’s still only 2.7 percent of the white student population. If, alternatively, we look at it as a black plague, then it’s 33 percent or fully a third of the black students! Stunning! What’s wrong with them? But there are choices in this analysis: We could see the plague as an affliction affecting an organic component of the entire student body–a statistic that reflects a vulnerability of the whole institution. Or we could segregate it in taxonomic ways that isolate or even blame those five–and race is certainly the easiest of taxonomies by which to accomplish this cynical end. (We could also just make sloppy categories, as Sander does–for example, he counts as white all those who do not indicate their race.)

What a very different picture might emerge if we looked at money rather than race. Wealth is the single most consistent predictor of academic success; indeed, disproportionate poverty is a key reason black students drop out of schools at any tier. Does this mean that the mismatch hypothesis really should be advising that “capable” poor students attend second-tier colleges because it harms them to have to compete against their wealthier, privately tutored “betters”? What if we broke it down by ethnicity, region and class rather than race and income? One wonders if the commission’s stated antipathy to “diversity” as any part of admissions criteria would lead it to conclude that Tier One schools should be peopled exclusively by, say, multilingual upper-class women with perfect scores from an exclusive academy in a small corner of Beijing, while “capable” WASP men from Iowa should find satisfaction in the ever so serviceable second tier–lest they hurt themselves, poor overambitious little ducks.

The commission’s message has fanned out: Peter Kirsanow’s article in National Review is titled “Affirmative Damage: Students sacrificed in the name of ‘diversity.'” Stuart Taylor bemoans the “tragedy” and the “curse” that “plague” young black lawyers who are so “embittered” that they leave big firms “at two or three times the rate of whites,” and Gail Heriot worries that below-average minority students must struggle with “the loss of several years of their lives.” Ambition kills, I guess. But here’s the bright side, all you capable young black lawyers: By Bush’s math the situation in Iraq is three times better than ever.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy