A window on what is fair

December 8, 2015

Apparently the SCOTUS is going to revisit an affirmative action case involving University admissions. I caught a small part of a NPR show on this, tuning in just in time to catch one of the opinion makers providing his analysis (around 37 min into the episode). It went something like this.

First, he noted in tones most disapproving, that “most of the students benefiting from affirmative action policies at elite universities are middle, or upper middle, class”.

This is, of course, one of the great strategies of the anti-diversity crowd, not least of which because they managed to get the pusillanimous support for it out of the squishier pro-diversity types. “Oh, yes, we must agree that affirmative action is about demonstrated acute disadvantage for each individual applicant to University“, is about the size of it. To be honest, I don’t know if this guy on the radio was anti-diversity or one of these folks who has been hornswaggled by this particular anti-diversity tactic. It doesn’t really matter because the result on the audience is the same.

Back to the story. Affirmative action is only for the most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged. Therefore, you see, if the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies are “middle to upper middle class”, well affirmative action is clearly broken.

As a bit of an aside, notice this neat little conflation? Middle class with upper-middle class? It’s bad enough that the concept of “middle class” is so huge and poorly defined that trying to claim members of the middle deserve no assistance in overcoming barriers to college admission is ridiculous. Oh no. We must roll this in together, seamlessly, with the upper-middle class. Because we know for damn sure that once you are in upper-middle, you deserve no help whatsoever. You have it made, baby.

So then, within a breath this guy says “….of course the white students are even richer” as barely an aside. Credit where due, at least he mentioned it. But AYFK? For whatever he meant by “elite Universities”, the white population was richer than “middle to upper-middle”.

Apple meet Orange. No matter how advantaged the beneficiary of affirmative action may be relative to the general population, he or she was still disadvantaged relative to the people at those elite Universities who were from the privileged groups. This is dismissed, however, as if it is barely relevant.

But wait, it gets better. He then immediately pivoted to “I don’t think anyone thinks that Obama’s children deserve affirmative action help”.


Last I checked, Obama’s salary was $400,000 per year and he gets, AFAIK, free room, much of his board and has a nice transportation allowance. Right? Plus, we know perfectly well that he and/or Michelle will make bank in the future from book royalties, speaking fees and the like. (Maybe even his SCOTUS salary? ….I crack myself up)

The Obama children are not middle class. They are not upper-middle class. They are lower rich.

But you see how this all works. It’s a nice little sleight of hand and misdirection. We’ve moved the conversation from middle class African-Americans, or other disadvantaged ethnicities, to….the children of the President of the United States.

Clearly if Sasha and Malia don’t need help then the child of a high school educated but stably employed and homeowning resident of Ferguson MO doesn’t need help either.

The anti-diversity voices want to further advance their agenda on the back of a very pernicious perception.

In the US, it is considered fair if the very top echelon of the disadvantaged population succeeds at the level of the bottom slice of the advantaged distribution.

And if any individual of the top echelon of the disadvantaged population should happen to achieve up past the middle of the advantaged distribution? Well clearly that is unfair and evidence of reverse discrimination!

Stop shaking your heads, scientist Readers. We have this same problem in every aspect of our business as well. From graduate school admissions to faculty new-hires. From grant award to tenure. Onward it goes. Ethnic minorities, sure, but also women and people who trained in the wrong University. There are the advantaged and there are the disadvantaged. Meaning, that for the apples to apples comparison we are talking about those who would all-else-equal succeed similarly. But because all else is not equal, some have an easier time than others. Some achieve higher with the same effort and others achieve the same with less effort. Either way, it is most assuredly not fair.

Any time there is under-representation, you will find that any efforts to make things fairer are crippled by this misunderstanding of distributions and individual accomplishment.

It is fair , you see, if the top 10% of the disadvantaged sneak up just parallel with the third quartile of the advantaged. Anything more is reverse discrimination and totally unfair to the advantaged among us.

20 Responses to “A window on what is fair”

  1. Dr24 Says:

    “Lower rich” is a thing? And in any case, anyone who’s been president is rich rich. Maybe they don’t have the 11 figure bank account, but they never pay for anything ever again they don’t want to, and they accumulate wealth by the millions.

    Elsewise, nice post.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Exactly. As I tried to mention. Future assured richness starting a year from now is not much different from current richness.


  3. Dr24 Says:

    Whoops: point of pedantry: MS is Mississippi. MO is Missouri.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    thanks. good catch.


  5. DJMH Says:

    Absolutely agree. Like, our faculties are just swarming with black people from middle or upper middle class families? Uh, no. So giving some preference to these kids at college / later times is still warranted.

    That said, there is a frustrating thing where the recently arrived African population end up being the recipients of AA *instead of* the true target population of African-Americans who have been in the country for generations. To be clear, I’m happy to see a more diverse grad / faculty / etc population through multiple routes, but sometimes I think those folks are used as excuses not to push harder to get local minorities. “Oh we already have one…”


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    The bar is certainly very low when it comes to improving diversity. The best result is finding only that one magical candidate who proves that the place is not completely homogenous. Preferably with a nice backstory of arising from a bad neighborhood everybody has heard of…..to train in the most elite of institutions….with the grandest of mentors….and to magnanimously be hired at our lovely institution so we can trot his story out to prove our…..

    Then you think….why is this perfect gem stuck in this raggedy ass U instead of the very tippy top ILAF Med school available?


  7. Anon Says:

    In a recent conversation with my boss about hiring Phd students “oh, you can straight up reject anyone who hasn’t studied outside their native country.” Rule only applies to anyone outside of the West… My reply: “no, that’s stupid”


  8. Jaws Says:

    “Lower rich” (or a very similar characterization) has been around for nearly a century, since Sinclair Lewis on this side of the Pond and George Orwell (among many, many others, and not just in English) in Europe.

    The real problem with affirmative action programs — not necessarily the concept — is that they all are dominated by single-proxy-value determinations. That is, making them administratively convenient makes them unfair _to someone_. Which, of course, presumes that “fair,” for some value of “fair,” is the only consideration that matters… and we can’t get much more infinitely reflexive than feeding that back into the input!


  9. dsks Says:

    “That said, there is a frustrating thing where the recently arrived African population end up being the recipients of AA *instead of* the true target population of African-Americans who have been in the country for generations.”

    I dunno, it’s not as if the new gen are immune to racial discrimination by any means, or that their representation in the sciences exceeds their representation in the population. As it is, hailing as I do from one of the main countries responsible for making such a mess out of large swathes of that continent I don’t feel a major drive to split hairs on ancestry per se.


  10. David Says:

    From what I gather (particularly form the article listed below and the associated quotes), it is a question of social mobility. If selective schools meet their AA obligations by only admitting upper class students, then we lose part of the rationale behind AA.

    While you can argue the merits of replacing AA with a class-based system, the cynic in me wonders if this is a way to appease those who ignore the institutional aspects of racism. Granted, there has been push back on the focus on class vs race (see Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders).

    “In the early days, affirmative action properly helped the young Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up in public housing, and the young Michelle Obama, whose parents did not go to college. But over time, the programs morphed into something very different. By the 1990s, one study found that 86 percent of African American students on selective campuses were middle or upper class”

    “Stanford’s Sean Reardon notes that 50 years ago, the test-score gap between black and white students was twice as large as the test-score gap between high-income and low-income students. Today, precisely the opposite is true.”



  11. drugmonkey Says:

    The real problem with affirmative action programs — not necessarily the concept — is that they all are dominated by single-proxy-value determinations.

    I would argue that for college undergraduate admissions, graduate school admissions and faculty hiring, this is untrue. They are painted that way by the opponents who pretend to disbelieve any claim on the part of the people charged with enacting affirmative action policies.

    This is particularly the case in states where anti-affirmative action polices passed by the legislatures have mandated inclusion of such things as first-gen college status, economic deprivation, etc. All factors are considered. After that, it is just fighting over how individual factors are conglomerated to come up with a given admissions bid or job offer.

    Semi-real example: Take an academic department deciding whether to hire the black candidate who is the off-spring of a professor at some small University somewhere versus the white candidate who hails from the hollars of Appalachia. You work through their respective schooling and training and performance and decide they are roughly comparable. So which do you go with? Is the economic privation / economic stability of their childhoods the deciding factor?

    Well, all you have to do is look at the current makeup of the department and observe that there are already two straight white guy Professors who hail from the hollars of Appalachia and boostrapped themselves to an ILAF and then a faculty position. Diversifying the department (one of the very clear upfront and center goals of affirmative-action is the institutional need- another trick of the anti-diversity forces is to ignore this in their rush to focus it on the alleged fairness to the individual candidate) requires going with what you don’t already have. Decision made. By far more than one “proxy value”. But it can be easily claimed to be “solely based on skin color”.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I dunno, it’s not as if the new gen are immune to racial discrimination by any means, or that their representation in the sciences exceeds their representation in the population.

    And once again, affirmative-action policies are not only there for the “fairness” to each individual candidate. They serve institutional goals. And if having a black person makes the place look more diverse and less threatening to future candidates (under grad, grad, faculty, etc) regardless of the fact s/he speaks with a foreign accent then the goal is attained. When you have a lily white institution and wish to do better, but are hamstrung by the optics of your institution, you serve the broader goals by changing those optics. By any means necessary.

    If selective schools meet their AA obligations by only admitting upper class students, then we lose part of the rationale behind AA.

    Sure but again, it is a bit of a scam when you admit that your AA students are still less class privileged than your existing majority population in your school to say “hey, we should only focus on the very lowest of class individuals”. It is also a capitulation to the anti-diversity forces to let them, as the guy I am referring to did on the NPR program, pivot to an argument that most people agree that the goal of affirmative action is to only benefit the demonstrably economically dispossessed.

    HELL no. That is not the only goal at all.


  13. cryptic biscuit Says:

    I used to be more sympathetic to this argument before interacting more with students from poor backgrounds, both white and non-white. It really is much more of a challenge, especially when contemplating an academic path, to be poor than to be from a URM. (Of course, being both is extra-challenging.) It really hurts to tell a poor white kid that he or she is not eligible for, or unlikely to be accepted to, an enrichment program, when you know what hurdles he or she has faced and know that a middle class kid, of whatever color, is less likely to have endured the same. The broad statement that we want diversity of skin tone hits the specificity of wanting to encourage people who rise to meet their challenges. What exactly would you tell a poor, white kid in this case?

    Believe it or not, those of us who aren’t fond of affirmative action are in many cases liberal and in favor of social justice. Despite the increasingly self-righteous tone of your blog posts, there is, in fact, room for reasonable people to have different views.


  14. Eli Rabett Says:

    Why do they admit rock heads from Montana?


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    cb- sounds to me like you are comparing apples and oranges, instead of black and white individuals of the same economic and social privation / advantage. Suppose you gate your affirmative action purely on family wealth. We are still a majority white country and even with the economic disparity that trends with ethnicity (~3X rate of black vs white americans in poverty) there are about twice as many whites under the poverty line.

    The odds are that for any social disadvantage criterion you choose to use, the population stats are going to mean that white americans are twice as likely to be selected for those limited admissions or hiring slots.

    Even before we return to the apples-to-apples adjustment, your policy continues the disparity and unfairness.

    Now if african american USians are 3X more likely to be in poverty, does that not suggest that on average the people you consider under a purely economic affirmative action policy are not equal in terms of potential? So when you compare apples to apples in terms of innate potential, you have not accounted for the higher poverty rate that african americans have suffered under.


    What exactly would you tell a poor, white kid in this case?
    As far as this goes specifically, every affirmative action program that I have had contact with in the past 20 years or so has at least given lip service to economic disparity regardless of race. In short, the poor white kid qualifies for consideration. [actually, “the Dean’s hire” may possibly be the exception, can’t recall any of those] I cannot speak to how many times such programs end up benefiting such persons or if ever a poor white candidate has been overlooked in preference to a middle class black candidate. Nothing specific sticks to mind from my various committees and what not.

    there is, in fact, room for reasonable people to have different views.
    Sure. and these are colored by our experiences and who we know and don’t know. In my case, through many decades of being around college professor types, the white man who comes from the working class is entirely common whereas ethnic minorities are pointedly underrepresented and quite rare. STILL. This possibly explains my take on this issue.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    oh, and criptic byscuit..

    it is a heck of a lot easier to pass for not-poor than it is to pass for not-white in these here united states.


  17. becca Says:

    I do think that class is becoming more ossified over time. Having Boomer profs from Appalachia will thus be radically more likely than post Millennial profs from those places.
    Having said that, AA doesn’t usually displace poor whites… in fact it hugely benefits white women. If I were a middle class Asian I might see it differently.


  18. dsks Says:

    Oh ffs. The majority of the students that I interact with who are associated with the McNair program, let alone all the other similar programs, are white. Chiefly due to the demographics of upstate NY and the rural poor. The idea that poor white kids are losing out due to AA for rich black kids is bullshit, imho, and goes against my experience working in one of the most economically deprived areas of NY. If AA inflicts a disadvantage to whites, it’s chiefly to underachieving white kids from middleclass families. Even as someone with kids growing up in exactly that demographic, I just cannot work up much in the way of outrage about that.


  19. […] other day I was discussing the notion of what is "fair" in majority USian […]


  20. […] extended to anyone of apparent socio-economic privileges who just so happens to be Black. Such as the Obama daughters. None of us are clean on this. Take Category C. I have relatively recently realized that I qualify […]


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