Affirmative Action

I went to a duel on a recent evening in a large auditorium at the University of Virginia, with Linda Chavez and the dean of admissions, Mr. Blackburn, speaking on affirmative action. Both had good points, but I’d give Blackburn a clear victory. I’d guesstimate three-quarters of the audience had decided on that outcome in advance. The crowd was slightly rowdy, by UVa lecture-hall standards.

Chavez spoke first. She runs the Center for Equal Opportunity, in DC, and their reports on various colleges can, she said, be found at ceousa.org. Chavez said she couldn’t get any data on the wealth of students at UVa or elsewhere because it’s in the offices of financial aid and not the offices of admissions. I’m not sure why the Freedom of Info. Act should apply in one case and not the other.

Chavez said that she got data on a disc from UVa and had it analyzed by a “professional statistician.” She found a difference of 160 points IIRC between mean SAT scores for “whites” and “blacks” admitted. (BTW no one questioned the possibility of this racial categorization during the whole show.) And she found that whites were in the 97th percentile and blacks the
94th IIRC in their high schools. According to her professional statistician this was significant.

With this data the professional statistician calculated that a black kid has a 45-times-greater chance of getting into UVa. This would seem to imply nowledge of what weight, among numerous other factors, is given to the two data mentioned – something Chavez never pretended to have. But my impression is that the calculation was just based on a pretense that the SAT was the sole admissions consideration.

Chavez claimed that racial discrimination in admissions is illegal, although the national law which applies in Virginia holds that it is legal if it’s used to advance education (via the benefits of diversity, i.e. the presence of minority students who presumably contribute varied cultural backgrounds). But Chavez also argued that the idea of “diversity” was dishonest, and seemed to claim that skin color does not tend in this time and place to correlate with anything other than skin color – oh yeah, and test scores, class ranks, graduation rates, etc.

Chavez said that she wants data on how students do, and that all she has now is graduation rates. She miss-spoke in reading these off, causing some confusion that lasted the rest of the evening, but the upshot of it was a claim that after six years ninety-some percent of whites and only 84 percent of blacks graduate from UVa. Blackburn later supplied the latest figures: 91%
for whites, 89% for blacks. Blackburn later pointed out that Chavez also had data on grades but didn’t discuss it because there wasn’t any variation there along racial lines.

Chavez predicted that abandoning racial discrimination would sharply reduce black enrollment at top schools, but assured us that blacks could go to second-rate colleges and be happy there. But why is she trying to demonstrate her fairness to the group called “African Americans” if she opposes on principle categorizing people that way? And doesn’t she know how drastic the
difference is between 1st and 2nd rate colleges?

Similarly, why did she later praise UVa for managing to have blacks and whites score equal grades? Sounds like an “equality of outcome” line.

In an aside, which I think should have been central, Chavez admitted that pre-college education is not equally distributed. She did not propose doing anything about it. This fact is what lets me sympathize with those who saw her as a villain. How can she justify not devoting her energy to improving our pre-college public education system which provides the worst schools for
the children most in need?

Chavez said that she found wealth-based affirmative action acceptable, but did not demand it as highly desirable (as I would). In fact, her plan for sending blacks to 2nd-string schools would seem to rule out poverty-based a.a. (which would in many cases mean admission of blacks).

And she claimed that SAT scores slightly favored blacks (rather than disfavored, as is usually suggested). This was based on “the studies that have been done.”

Blackburn began by pointing out that while favoring blacks in admissions, UVa has improved, not fallen, in ranking. He recounted the recent history of segregation in Virginia and insisted that UVa not resegregate so soon. He admitted that alumni’s offspring are favored, which allowed Chavez to later point out that in a recently all-white school this favors whites. Preferences for athletes were not discussed, except when Chavez later suggested that Blackburn might be admitting blacks in order to boost athletic eams. (Are black athletes a significant percentage of admissions? In any case, Blackburn had said no such thing.)

Blackburn pointed out that racial discrimination is currently legal, but recognized that this might change.

He described the admissions process, in which the SAT does not play a dominant role. And he pointed out that about 60 percent of applicants are from out-of-state and that these (“mostly white”) people must be limited to 35 ercent of admissions. Among the many, many factors that Blackburn claimed were considered were (lack of) wealth and the possibility of being a
first-generation college student.

Blackburn also pointed out that Chavez’s total figure for number of students admitted in a year was about half the accurate one, thus seriously calling into question the accuracy of all of her analysis. Chavez claimed to have gotten a disc from UVa and to have used what was given her. She also denied having placed an inflammatory ad in a local newspaper, saying that a separate
“completely unaffiliated” group had done so. Blackburn said that it was that allegedly separate group to which he’d given the disc, and that they’d given it to Chavez.

The question-and-answer session at the end kind-of deteriorated. Chavez proved the value of second-rate universities by pointing out that she’d been to one. She said that relegating blacks to such places would not keep them from being leaders. And in the same breath she bragged about having been one of the only non-Ivy Leaguers in the Reagan Whitehouse.

I wanted to ask what she was doing to improve crappy elementary schools, but I didn’t get a chance.

Blackburn was pressed to put a figure on how much weight race carries, and he said that he could not. He explained, reasonably enough, that he looks at an entire person, and that no two are identical. But he did not go out of his way to praise racial discrimination, other than in his warnings about resegregating. And neither he nor anyone else exactly attempted an argument
for the superiority of race-based as opposed to poverty-based affirmative action.

Although the entire performance assumed the division of people into races, there was not a word spoken explicitly in favor of segregation or against Blackburn’s contempt for it.

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