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June 24, 2004

Who "benefits" from affirmative action at elite universities?

Abiola has a entry where he references this article that discusses the fact that the proportion of blacks at elite universities who are immigrants or the children of immigrants (that is, usually West Indian or African in origin) is far greater than their numbers would suggest. Here is a telling quotation:

Aisha Haynie, the undergraduate whose senior thesis Professor Guinier cited, said her research was prompted by the reaction from her black classmates when she told them that she was not from the West Indies or Africa, but from the Carolinas. "They would say, 'No, where are you really from?' "

As I noted a week ago, those who are most able to utilize a system meant to redress past injustice might not be exactly who you would expect. The above article also highlights another major issue: those on the outside are prone to ignoring substructure within any given ethnic typology (and the "leaders" within any given ethnic typology are happy to gloss over substructure because it might create fissures in their power structure). Another example is the "Model Minority" paradigm of Asian Americans, which "activists" like to point out neglects the fact that Southeast Asians tend to be far less affluent than East and South Asians (and then tend to over-emphasize the Southeast Asian experience as if it is typical of Asian Americans). The success of West Indians in higher education should be no surprise to anyone, John McWhorter's Losing the Race spent a fair amount of time on this topic. The prominence of peoples of West Indian origin, from Marcus Garvey to Colin Powell, should also clue in any students of history on the disproportionate role this group has played in black America (along with mixed-race individuals and descendents of "free blacks," that is, those who were not slaves before emancipation).

School administrators almost certainly know that many of their African Americans students are atypical of the general African American population. To get into an elite university, one has to be academically atypical, and one would not be surprised if there was a skew toward higher incomes. On the other hand, it is peculiar that a particular ethnic segment of a given ethnic group tend to "fill up all the slots" that were probably intended to have broad-based utilization. But of course, administrators don't care, a West Indian African American looks the same in the brochures as an African American with roots in the "Black Belt" of the deep South. The bottom line is a certain number of African Americans in a university's freshmen class bolsters its "diversity" and keeps race warriors off the backs of university presidents [1].

Policies like race-based affirmative action were formulated in the 1960s, and they were most appropriate to the nation at the time. That is, one in which 90% of the population is formed by native born whites, and the 10% "minority" is coterminous with the native black American population. We now live in a different nation, but policies formulated for the "Old America" have become so entrenched that they are now fixed signposts that define the "rules of the game" in American culture.

Addendum: New readers might also be interested in this old entry about the individual impact of affirmative action on highly qualified black Americans. I conclude that though affirmative might be a net positive for the economic and social well being of American blacks, a highly qualified subset suffers because there is the perception that their success is not due to their talent, but rather, a "helping hand."

[1] In Mexifornia Vic Hanson refers to the practice of some universities recruiting Iberian Spaniards to bolster the number of "Latinos." Vanderbilt's outreach toward Jews is a way that the school can 1) bolster diversity and 2) increase its standardized test scores. One might imagine a university in the future recruiting highly qualified African students to bolster its percentage of blacks, without having to take the responsibilities of remedial education that institutions like CUNY have had to take on because of a push toward diversity.

Posted by razib at 02:56 PM