Of Loaded Footnotes and Lying Pundits: Deceptive Data and the Attack on Racial Equity

Memo to Ross Douthat: Sometimes, people fact-check.

One of the perks of being an op-ed columnist, as Douthat is — he being the resident conservative essayist at the New York Times — is that you can say pretty much anything you like. It’s your opinion, after all, so the standards of accuracy to which a news writer might be held are often relaxed.

And so Douthat probably figured he could string together his weekly compliment of 650 words, as with his July 18 column attacking affirmative action, and even if he misrepresented the study he referenced so as to justify his broadside, few would know, and no one would actually go and read the study in question to see if he’d gotten it right. After all, reading a several-hundred page academic book takes longer and involves more effort than checking up on an Andrew Breitbart video.

Indeed it does. Unfortunately for Mr. Douthat, I had the time. And having now read the book, cover to cover, I can say without fear of contradiction, Ross Douthat is every bit as duplicitous as Brietbart. In fact, Douthat is more dangerous because he operates from atop a legitimate journalistic perch several steps above any place with which Brietbart — Matt Drudge’s former ideological and professional paramour  — is even familiar.

In the instant case, Douthat’s column, entitled, “The Roots of White Anxiety,” feigns academic backing for the longstanding conservative criticism of campus diversity efforts and affirmative action programs. Citing the 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, by Princeton professors Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford, Douthat’s thesis is simple: white anxiety and resentment are understandable, given admissions policies at elite colleges and universities. Not only do these policies give unfair preferences to less qualified blacks and Latinos, they especially disadvantage whites from conservative states who engage in typical “red state” activities, like ROTC and Future Farmers of America. In other words, university admissions offices are not just biased towards the black and brown, they also exude a political and cultural bias against particular types of white people.

Douthat also claims, incredulously, that while coming from a lower-income family boosts the admissions odds for applicants of color, it lowers the odds for whites. In other words, working class whites from conservative cultural backgrounds are the truly downtrodden, or as Douthat puts it, “The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses.” This mistreatment of “downscale” whites then “breeds paranoia” among them (unlike, say, 8-plus hours of coverage of the phony New Black Panther voter intimidation story on FOX News), and “fuels…racially-tinged conspiracy theories,” like the one about President Obama being a “foreign-born Marxist.” No, seriously, in Douthat’s fevered imagination, even birtherism can at least partially be lain at the feet of the left-leaning, multi-culti Harvard admissions office.

In truth, it may not be fair to blame Douthat for the absurdity that is his column, since it appears he didn’t actually read the Espenshade and Radford book, but rather, chose to rely on the interpretation of it offered up by someone else–in this case, Russ Nieli, a lecturer at Princeton, and longtime affirmative action foe. Unfortunately, when a fool depends on a liar for information, this is what happens. Not only is Russ Nieli’s interpretation of the Espenshade and Radford study dishonest, it must be considered deliberately so. After all, Nieli works on the same campus as the authors. Indeed, in buildings that are right next door to one another: Corwin and Wallace Halls respectively. Had Nieli been remotely interested in honesty he could have walked the 50 yards or so from his office to Espenshade’s and had a sit-down. Surely he could have spent at least as long talking with Espenshade as he did, say, engaging in respectful discussions with overt neo-Nazis for a book he co-edited several years ago on the white supremacist movement. But to Nieli it is apparently more important to find out what makes David Duke tick (hint: it’s racism Russ, racism), than it is to fully explore the data compiled by one of his colleagues. And now, the nation reaps the whirlwind of his own duplicity, via a nationally-syndicated column by an author no more concerned with truth than his source.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Conservatives: How the Right Distorts Data

Are Whites (and Especially Red State Whites) Being Oppressed by Affirmative Action?

Turning now to the claims put forth by Douthat, relying on Nieli: to suggest that affirmative action at the nation’s most elite schools is at “the root” of white anxiety in America is preposterous. To begin, and as Espenshade and Radford clearly note, few college applicants of any color even apply to these schools, and as such, have no reason to be anxious about their possibilities for acceptance. Two-thirds of all first year college students attend schools where more than 75 percent of all applicants are accepted. Only a statistical handful apply to the most selective colleges — the ones where affirmative action really comes into play — and even there, when whites are rejected, diversity efforts are hardly to blame. Fact is, at such institutions there are far more qualified applicants than there are available slots, and even without any affirmative action programs, almost all the whites who didn’t get in, still wouldn’t get in. At Harvard, for instance, one-fourth of applicants with perfect SATs and 80 percent of all valedictorians are rejected, because there are simply too many of these folks applying at the school to let them all in, to say nothing of those with lower test scores and grades but whose applications suggest their abilities in spite of this fact.

Even with affirmative action, whites continue to predominate at elite schools, comprising 78 percent of students in such institutions, and over two-thirds at elite private colleges and universities. Black and Latino students, whom we’re to believe are taking all the choice slots from whites, make up between 12-14 percent of the combined total at these schools, hardly justifying white angst the likes of which Douthat and Nieli seek to legitimize. And since the 1980s, the shares of blacks and Latinos in these schools have only increased by two percentage points each, hardly sufficient to explain the white fear and loathing we’ve seen in recent years. Meanwhile, students whose own parents attended these schools — applicants known as “legacies” — continue to receive preferences larger than those claimed for African Americans, despite having lower than average qualifications. Yet the white working class folks who are angered by black and brown “advantages” in college acceptance say very little about legacy preferences, whose beneficiaries are almost all wealthy whites. Not surprisingly, neither Douthat nor Nieli seem to mind them.

As for the claim that whites from “red states” are especially disadvantaged in the admissions process, and even more so when they engage in activities like ROTC and Future Farmers of America, here too Douthat and Nieli get it exactly wrong. According to Espenshade and Radford, applicants from Republican-leaning states like Utah, Alabama, West Virginia and Montana actually have an advantage in admissions due to the desire of elite colleges for geographic diversity. In fact, an applicant to an elite school from Utah, whose qualifications are equal to those of someone from California, is 45 times more likely than the California applicant to be admitted: an admissions advantage that is nine times larger than the boost for African American students who are academically equal to whites (a subject to which we’ll return).

And although Espenshade and Radford do note the lower admissions odds of students with significant leadership roles in “career-oriented activities,” this category includes more than simply ROTC and FFA. Indeed, among the career-oriented extra-curriculars that were associated with lower admissions odds, were several that predominate in urban and “blue state” schools, such as Model United Nations, mock trial teams and clubs for budding entrepreneurs. And to the extent there is any disadvantage specifically for rural applicants engaged in career-oriented activities, it is not because such involvement says something about the applicants’ politics. Nor is it due to blue state cultural bias — as Douthat and Nieli both suggest — but rather, according to Espenshade, it’s because heavy involvement in career activities like the military or farming might suggest “that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures.”

What’s the Truth About “Racial Preferences” in Admissions?

As for the claim that elite schools are providing substantial preferences to black applicants, despite their having less impressive academic credentials (in terms of test scores and grades), the evidence is not nearly as clear cut as Douthat and Nieli suggest.

First, let’s examine the data in the light most favorable to the conservative thesis, and let’s do this, even as it is a courtesy no conservative would ever do for those of us on the left. On the one hand, the evidence presented by Espenshade and Radford appears to confirm the argument being forwarded by Nieli and Douthat. So, for instance, black applicants are five times more likely than whites with the same test scores and grades to be admitted to elite private colleges, and about 30 percent more likely to be admitted to these schools than whites overall, even with average SAT scores that are 138 points below the average for whites. For white applicants at elite schools to have the same odds of acceptance as black students with SAT scores of 1100 (on the old 1600 point scale) the white students would need SATs of 1410, a seemingly huge preference and evidence of a dramatic double standard.

The evidence seems even more convincing when black applicants are compared to Asian American applicants, the latter of whom make up a disproportionate share of those with high test scores and other academic credentials. Asian Americans who apply to elite schools have a 2/3 lower chance of admission than even white students with the same academic qualifications, and for an Asian American applicant to have the same odds of admission as a black applicant to an elite school who had scored 1100 on the SAT, the Asian American student would need a near-perfect SAT of 1550. Taken at face value, it appears the critics of affirmative action have a point: African American students are being held to a much lower standard of excellence, resulting not only in unfair and unearned preferences for blacks, but unfair and unjust discrimination against whites and Asians.

But if it were that simple, Espenshade and Radford could have written these facts up in an essay, or even a blog post and been done with it. Yet as competent scholars, with a commitment to fleshing out the full meaning of the research, they wrote several hundred pages more. And among the things they note, one paragraph in particular stands out, because therein they utterly reject the conclusions reached by Nieli and Douthat as to what their research means. As Espenshade and Radford explain:

“It would be a mistake to interpret the data…as meaning that elite college admissions officers are necessarily giving extra weight to black and Hispanic candidates just because they belong to underrepresented minority groups…in our judgment it is more likely that a proper assessment of these data is that the labels ‘black’ and ‘Hispanic’ are proxies for a constellation of other factors in a candidate’s application folder that we do not observe…perhaps having overcome disadvantage and limited opportunity or experiencing challenging family or schooling circumstances…If we were able to include these other considerations in our models we believe the effect of being black or Hispanic per se would be diminished.”

Indeed, there is a significant amount of data uncovered by Espenshade and Radford that seem to confirm their suspicions, and suggest that black and Latino students are, in all likelihood, seen as impressive applicants by college admissions officers, and equal to their white and Asian counterparts — even when they have lower scores and grades — because of the background factors and disadvantages against which they were having to operate. This phenomenon could be called a proxy effect, meaning that racial identity is so highly correlated with other background factors, that what appears to be a blatant racial preference is really reflecting “overcomer” tendencies, found disproportionately in less advantaged black and Latino applicants.

So, for instance, two-thirds of all blacks in highly selective schools come from families with less than $50,000 in annual income (twice the rate for white students in those schools), and 60 percent come from families with less than $25,000 in net assets (whereas half of whites and Asians come from families with over $200,000 in net assets). Furthermore, white students’ fathers are about 75 percent more likely than the fathers of black students to have a professional, managerial or executive level job. Nearly 40 percent of black applicants to elite institutions come from low-achieving high schools (twice the rate for similar whites and four times the rate for Asian Americans), the typical black applicant attended a school with twice as many classmates who received free or reduced price lunches as their white or Asian counterparts, and the typical black applicant lived in a community with far fewer college educated residents or residents with professional occupational positions. White and Asian parents are far more likely to have college degrees themselves, and both black and Latino applicants are 5-6 times more likely than white applicants (and more than 2.5 times as likely as Asian applicants) to be poor.

Given the substantial disadvantages faced by black and Latino students, relative to their white and Asian counterparts, it should not surprise us that they may be admitted at lower levels of presumed academic merit. After all, to score an 1150 on the SAT despite facing substantial obstacles may reasonably be considered more impressive than scoring 1400 having had a plethora of class and environmental advantages. So too, for a black student to score the same as a white or Asian applicant — given the radically different backgrounds from which that black applicant likely comes — suggests they are probably more qualified than the more privileged applicant. It would be the equivalent of starting a race three laps behind another runner and yet catching up by the end of the race and crossing the finish line at the same time. That alone could explain why African Americans are five times more likely than their equally qualified white counterparts to be admitted to elite schools.

But proxy effects are not the only considerations ignored by Nieli and Douthat. So too are what we might call cohort dissimilarity effects. Put simply, if admissions officers know, as they do, that Asian American applicants tend to rank among the top of all applicants in terms of test scores and grades, and that black applicants tend to cluster closer to the bottom, it will be easier for any given black applicant with an impressive file (even if less impressive than the average white or Asian applicant) to stand out in the eyes of admissions officers.

Think about it. According to Espenshade and Radford, half of all Asian applicants to the most selective schools have SATs on the old scale of 1400 or above. Nearly one-fourth score 1500 or better. Needless to say, this means that for most admissions officers, seeing yet another Asian applicant with high test scores and grades is not going to stand out as much. It will not be sufficiently dissimilar from the larger cohort of Asian applicants to make an impression. Perhaps if the Asian applicant had something in their file that differentiated them — say, a theatre or dance background, or having written a mystery novel — they would catch the eye of the admissions reader, even with lower scores and grades. But with such an “overqualified” cohort (in the narrowest academic sense), it becomes harder for any individual Asian applicant to stand out. On the other hand, a black applicant with test scores that are well above the black average (even if still below the average for others), might appear especially well-qualified and benefit from the very cohort dissimilarity that works against Asian Americans. Although Espenshade and Radford do not make this point, it seems eminently reasonable given the data and what is known about the admissions process and the importance of “standing out from the crowd.”

The Trouble With Using “Admissions Odds” as Evidence of “Reverse Discrimination”

Finally, to use relative “admissions odds” for different racial groups as a way to demonstrate the existence of racial discrimination (in this case against whites and Asians) is an inherently flawed method of analysis. Several years ago, when those attacking the affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan School of Law made this argument in court — unsuccessfully it should be noted — I explained why admissions odds ratios (which were far higher for blacks than whites) said little if anything about whether any given applicant was receiving unfair preferential treatment. The reason then, and it holds now, is that when the pool of applicants in a given cohort is relatively small (as with very well-qualified blacks to elite schools), to admit even a small number of those students will skew the “odds ratio” upward, relative to other racial groups where the cohort of highly qualified applicants is higher.

So, in the instant case, consider a hypothetical where an elite college received, say, 50 applications from African Americans who had SAT scores of 1400 or better and who graduated in the top ten percent of their class, with an “A” average. And let’s say the same school received similarly qualified applications from 1000 Asian Americans and 3000 whites. If the institution admitted even 25 of the black applicants — all of whom were clearly qualified for admission — in order to not be viewed as having engaged in discrimination against whites and Asians, the school would have to admit 500 of the Asian Americans and 1500 of the whites. But if, as is often the case at elite schools, there are only around 1500 slots in the entire first year class, this would be impossible. They would have to admit the whites and Asians at a lower rate, or else bust the class cap (and this is assuming they wouldn’t want to admit any applicants with less than the above-mentioned scores and grades, no matter what else might be in their file to recommend them).

Or, alternately, they could bring the black admissions ratio down considerably to meet the white and Asian ratio, but in so doing they would have to admit almost none of the blacks in question. If they wanted to admit, say, 20 percent of applicants at this level, they would end up with 200 Asian Americans at this level of qualifications, 600 whites at that level, and only 10 African Americans. So Douthat and Nieli would have schools reject almost all of the clearly qualified black applicants just to make sure the admissions odds ratios remained the same.

In effect, relying on admissions odds ratios to indicate discrimination punishes blacks for being a small cohort of applicants at that level in the first place, since admitting virtually any applicants from a small cohort will produce a larger odds ratio than admitting even far larger numbers from a much larger cohort or base. So even though blacks admitted at a higher ratio would all be qualified, and even though their presence on campus, even with that higher ratio, would be miniscule, Nieli and Douthat would have colleges and universities chop even these small numbers just to satisfy some arbitrary and ultimately unfair mathematical computation.

Sins of Omission: What Douthat and Nieli Conveniently Forget to Mention

But even more telling than the way in which Nieli and Douthat distorted the work of Espenshade and Radford, is the way in which they blatantly ignored the several conclusions put forth by the latter that utterly eviscerate several of the most common conservative critiques of affirmative action.

So, for instance, and although neither Douthat nor Nieli possess the intellectual veracity to mention it, Espenshade and Radford completely debunk the following common conservative arguments against affirmative action:

1. That affirmative action only helps blacks who are affluent, and therefore are not truly “deserving.” In fact, African Americans from the lower two income tiers receive a marked advantage in terms of admissions odds to elite colleges, relative to more affluent blacks. Indeed, the lowest-income black applicants are more than four times as likely as their affluent counterparts to be admitted to such schools.

2. The argument that black students admitted with the help of affirmative action are in over their heads, and would have been better off going to a less selective school where their qualifications were more like the average, rather than significantly below average. In fact, the authors reject this argument categorically and demonstrate that although attending an elite school does depress a matriculant’s class rank relative to what it would have been at a less selective school, this is true for all students, not merely black students or those with lower test scores. In all, blacks who attend more selective schools have higher graduation rates than their counterparts at less selective schools, and even if their class rank may suffer, this is not necessarily due to having less merit. In fact, even when black and white students are compared with the same pre-enrollment test scores and grades, black students get lower college grades on average and graduate at a significantly lower rate. This suggests that the cause of lower black performance is not less ability per se, but rather, feelings of isolation on mostly white and affluent campuses, and perhaps additional financial instability, thereby making it harder to finish college.

3. The argument that affirmative action and diversity efforts lead to increased racial “balkanization” on campus, increasing racial tension and encouraging self-segregation by students of color. In fact, students of color are far more likely to interact across racial lines than whites, and if anything it is whites who tend to stick to themselves and show no interest in cross-racial interactions. But contrary to the conservative explanation for white insularity, it does not appear to be the result of experiences at the college level (such as increased resentment or backlash to diversity efforts). Rather, it is due to whites replicating the kind of filial networks that were common for them in high school. Since whites are so much more likely than students of color to have been in racially homogenous settings prior to college, they tend to maintain homogenous groupings upon arrival. But as the authors note, if colleges make deliberate efforts to encourage interaction and maintain a critical mass of students of color on campus, the benefits of diversity become substantial. This further debunks a common conservative criticism of affirmative action: namely, that there is no need to maintain a critical mass of students of color at elite schools in order to reap diversity benefits.

And finally:

4. The argument that black underperformance in college is due to these students placing less emphasis on academic pursuits that their white or Asian counterparts. In fact, as the data shows, black students at selective schools are just as likely as others (and oftentimes more likely) to have engaged in academic enrichment programs in high school, to have participated in academic clubs, to have taken test prep classes or to have attended magnet or private schools for the purpose of improving their chances of admission to elite colleges. These are clearly not the behaviors of students or families with an inadequate attachment to learning and success.

In addition to debunking these common conservative criticisms of affirmative action, Espenshade and Radford make a number of suggestions that no conservative activist, author, commentator or elected official would likely support, including a massive public investment effort (on the lines of the Manhattan Project) to study and then eradicate academic achievement gaps between white and Asian students on the one hand and black students on the other. This kind of government effort to eliminate racial disparities would be solidly rejected by the Ross Douthats and Russ Nielis of the nation–folks who are much more comfortable telling black people to just “try harder” as the end-all, be-all solution to racial gaps in performance.

What About Working Class Whites? The One Thing Douthat and Nieli Get Right, Almost

With all this said, there is one point made by Douthat and Nieli that deserves legitimate consideration and concern. Namely, the point about lower income status working against whites in admissions, whereas it helps applicants who are black or Latino. Indeed, the Espenshade and Radford study does indicate this. But while the conservative take on this data appears to be a semi-conspiratorial one — replete with the aforementioned blue-state limousine liberal cultural biases against Joe Six pack types — the real explanation is quite a bit less exotic. Likewise, the solution to the problem is hardly the one hinted at by Douthat — to replace race-based with class-based affirmative action — or said explicitly by Nieli: to completely eliminate all but grade and test score considerations in elite college admissions.

In all likelihood, the reason low income whites find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of admissions odds is due to the exigencies of institutional finance. In other words, whereas schools can admit high percentages of low income blacks and Latinos without overwhelming their financial aid budgets (simply because the numbers of these applicants who will be able to qualify for admission will still be small), to provide the same “bump” for low-income whites, since they could potentially be a substantial chunk of applicants, would prove prohibitive in terms of cost. By focusing their low-income admissions on black and brown applicants, schools can meet legitimate racial diversity goals and economic diversity goals at once, saving money in the process. As unfortunate as this arrangement is, it is unfair to suggest that working class and poor whites are somehow being bumped because of naked racial preference, as the right often does, when the truth is clearly more complicated.

If Douthat would like to see more low and moderate income whites admitted and enrolled at elite schools, as I and most all leftists would, he should join in our calls for a greater federal commitment to expanded Pell Grants and other government subsidies for higher education (which would relieve some of the financial fears on the part of the schools that admitting too many low income whites would swamp their aid budgets). Likewise, he should join the call for changing the formulas used in ranking schools (such as, with U.S. News and World Report), so as to consider socioeconomic diversity (in admissions and retention) as a plus factor, which would boost a school’s “selectivity” index. That few if any conservatives wish to make higher education more affordable, or to tinker with elitist ranking schemes suggests that their expressed concern for working class college applicants is more about politics than fairness.

Though Douthat never comes right out and calls for a switch from race-based to class-based affirmative action (and Nieli wants to do away with any consideration other than traditional academic standards, even though this would also reduce the ranks of working class whites in elite schools), this position flows rather easily from his (mis)analysis of Espenshade and Radford. And because it is an argument often made by liberals and progressives as well, it is worth considering the many ways in which, despite its apparent fairness, such a shift would be anything but.

The fact is, substituting a class-based system of affirmative action for the current race-based system would, according to Espenshade and Radford, reduce the percentages of black and Latino students by one-third at elite schools, and especially among such students who were solidly middle class, and could no longer qualify for any affirmative action consideration. This, despite the fact that the black middle class (and even blacks with high incomes) are far worse off, in terms of assets and reserve wealth than whites who earn much less. So African American and Latino students who still faced substantial disadvantages, but whose parents made decent incomes, would be left out in the cold, while white students whose parents were far better off in terms of assets (possibly because of property handed down by a relative) but who earned less, would reap the lion’s share of the preferences.

Ironically, such a shift would mean that an even larger share of black and Latino students on elite campuses would be low-income than is the case now. If anything, such a result would only harden racial stereotypes among whites, who would come into contact with very few affluent black or brown kids from professionally successful families. And it would also likely lead to even lower rates of college completion for African Americans and Latinos on these campuses, since the financial burdens that are highly correlated with a failure to finish college would now be even more common among these matriculants of color.

On the other hand (and especially if government financial aid were increased), schools could add class considerations to the admissions mix along with race, thereby recognizing the unique obstacles faced by people of color, irrespective of class status, while still providing additional opportunity to struggling whites. Such a supplemental approach would, according to Espenshade and Radford, substantially boost the numbers of low income white students on elite campuses, and would even provide a modest bump in the numbers of people of color on campus. In other words, the price for greater economic diversity would be paid not by black and Latino students, but mostly by affluent whites.

But don’t expect either Douthat or Nieli to ever endorse such a plan as this. Though conservatives cannot be trusted to honestly and accurately present basic research, they can always be counted on to feign concern for the working class, even as they jealously guard their own elite privileges, and those of others like them. Their populism is purely rhetorical: a memetic device to divide struggling whites from people of color, and convince them that their interests are somehow at odds with those of the black and brown, rather than being intimately linked to them.

And as always they are hoping that no one will ever call them on their bluff.

Oh well, consider the bluff called.

Tim Wise is the author of five books on race, including his latest, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010)

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