[reading time: 12 minutes]
What if I told you that black Americans who score 1,000 on their SATs have an equal chance of admission into a university as white Americans who score 1,310 or Asian-Americans who score 1,450 in that same test? Would you call this practice “unfair”? Would you perhaps be outraged at this “racist” policy? After all, numbers are the only thing we can’t manipulate. It’s one or zero; black or white. When you score higher on a test than your neighbour, you’re smarter. That’s the reasoning behind using SAT numbers, drawn from the infamous 2009 book by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford, both sociologists at Princeton University, for political purposes.
They’re used by critics of affirmative action, a policy which has never been fully defined by politicians. Advocates argue affirmative action is necessary for three distinct reasons. It helps fight discrimination, past and present, against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. It creates immediate opportunities for disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Finally, it ensures the diversification of university campuses and workplaces, leading to a more accurate representation of society.
In the 1990s, some states, led by California, launched a fight against the policy. In the end, eight of them banned the practice outright. Others, especially (white) Americans, have continued their fight against affirmative action in the courts. To this day, the Supreme Court has never actually scraped the entire practice. Looking at past rulings and the newly reshaped Court, opponents are hopeful that the ultimate win is within their grasps.
In 1978, when the Justices were first faced with the question of affirmative action, they ruled schools could only consider race if it served a “compelling” interest, i.e., to diversify the student population. In Gratz v Bollinger (2003), the nation’s highest court struck down university admission race-based points systems. That same year in Grutter v Bollinger (2003), they ruled race could only be considered as one of several “factors that may contribute to student body diversity.” Affirmative action in admission should also be time-limited, Justice O’Connor wrote for the majority, lasting no longer than 25 years. A decade later, the issue went up to the Supreme Court for the third time, and Justices, yet again, narrowed its scope. In Fisher v University of Texas (2013), the Court introduced strict scrutiny tests for affirmative action policies. First, institutions must explain why diversification is (still) necessary. Second, they must offer reasonable explanations for why diversification can only be achieved through race-based affirmative action. Having lost her first challenge against the University of Texas, Fisher was in front of the Justices one more time in 2016. In Fisher v University of Texas (2016), the now retired Justice Kennedy limited affirmative action, writing for the majority that race could only ever be considered as a “factor of a factor of a factor.” It was a 4-3 decision (Scalia had passed away by the time the Court issued its ruling, and Kagan recused herself due to her previous work on this case as a Solicitor General), with Kennedy joining the remaining 3 “liberal” Justices. Considering the young “conservative” majority today sitting on the Court, the end of affirmative action does indeed look inevitable.
Hello, Washington State.
The state on the Pacific coast was one of eight states that banned the practice in the late 1990s. Back then, over 58 per cent of voters backed Initiative 200, which banned the practice statewide in public employment, college admissions, and public contracting, in a state-wide referendum. Earlier this year, almost 400,000 voters signed Initiative 1000, calling for a repeal of the affirmative action ban. The Legislature in Olympia passed the initiative as is into law in April. It prompted other members of the public to successfully file a petition against I-1000, ensuring the issue will be put back to the voters this November. Washingtonians are thus faced with a slightly confusing referendum procedure. A “yes” in Referendum 88 – the official name of the so-called veto referendum – ultimately represents a vote for I-1000, i.e., a vote to end I-200 and thus the ban on affirmative action. A negative vote, on the other hand, overturns I-1000 and keeps the state’s original ban alive.
As expected, I-1000 enjoys the support of civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They argue minorities and women have suffered since 1998. Numbers from the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises underline this argument. Before Washingtonians voted to introduce a full ban on affirmative action, businesses run by women or ethnic minorities received 10 per cent of state contracting dollars. That figure has since dropped down to one to three per cent.
The number of minority high school students who went to college in Washington State also dropped after the referendum. One research paper, though, suggests this might have been down to the state no longer providing “a signal of an institutional “welcoming environment” rather than an act of internal racial bias on behalf of university admissions officers. But the situation in Washington State is in line with the experiences of minorities in California. When the nation’s largest state voted for Prop 209 in 1996, the impact for people of color was felt almost instantly. The number of offers of admission to African-Americans to prestigious universities Berkeley and UCLA dropped by an astonishing fifty-five per cent.
One side in this political fight has recently obtained crucial support. Today’s coalition against affirmative action is no longer led solely by white Americans. A small, yet very vocal, group of Asian-Americans, mostly relying on WeChat to gather information and organise against possible racist legislation, have joined their ranks. Five years ago, they successfully prevented SCA-5 in California, a bill that would have abolished the state ban on affirmative action. At this very moment, a white man is suing Harvard University in Massachusetts over its admission policy on behalf of a group of anonymous Asian-Americans. While they may have lost their case in the district court earlier this month, their ultimate goal is to bring the issue back to the Supreme Court. Plaintiffs argue the university has a cap for students like them (which would be unconstitutional), and affirmative action is, in and of itself, a discriminatory policy. They cite the figures by Espenshade and Radford to underline their arguments even though Espenshade himself told the Crimson there isn’t “sufficient empirical evidence to support” this claim. SAT scores only reveal so much about an applicant. The number from a standardized test doesn’t include any information about the quality of their college admission essay or their letters of recommendation. Harvard and proponents of affirmative actions might point to a different set of data, which suggests Asian-American applicants don’t face any greater obstacles than other ethnic groups.
Even on the national level, Asian-Americans have done far better under affirmative action than Hispanics or Blacks. A New York Times study from the nation’s top universities showed Asians and white people being overrepresented (relative to U.S. population) on college campuses, while Hispanics and Blacks remain vastly underrepresented.
In testimony on I-1000 in the spring, Linda Yang, a co-leader of the Washington Asians for Equality campaign, which represents the driving force behind the No (i.e., in favour of the ban) campaign, told lawmakers,
“I-1000 would legalise racial discrimination and penalise hardworking Asians by our skin color. At its core, it would allow less-qualified applicants to be selected based on race.”
The group furthermore told lawmakers in Olympia that the initiative should be named alongside the Chinese Exclusion Act or Nazi Germany as examples of government “solutions” to problems.
We should, of course, ignore Godwin’s law, but their key argument, namely that of worthiness and of test results being able to adequately rank people’s intelligence as well as their qualification to perform beyond expectations at school or in the workforce, should be scrutinized. Various studies show this not to be the case. It ignores an underlining problem of higher education, namely that Americans mostly inherit their education from their father. This problem partly explains why black U.S. families still need over 220 years to amass the amount of wealth currently owned by white Americans. The injustices faced by African-Americans – something Kan Qiu, the co-leader of Washington Asians for Equality, dismissed in a Seattle Times podcast earlier this month – are still being felt to this day.
Since I-1000 would also extend to women, one should note the importance of a father‘s education in this study. Racial or economic biases aren’t the only ones in standardised tests. The easiest way to ensure female students perform worse than their male counterparts in a maths test is to point out their gender. Whether they want to or not, this remark reminds them of the cultural belief that women perform badly in this subject. In turn, it impacts their self-confidence, and ultimately their performance in the said test. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina to sit on the Supreme Court, remarked in the 1990s, “There are cultural biases built into testing, and that was one of the motivations for the concept of affirmative action to try to balance out those effects.”
“The definition of merit is fluid and tends to reflect the values and interests of those who have the power to impose their particular culture ideals.” – Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion At Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
A study of Fortune 1000 companies between 2003 and 2013 showed these biases and the concept of merit to be present in the corporate world as well. A female CEO has a 27 per cent likelihood of facing shareholder activism – i.e., shareholders (who are mostly male) trying to take control of a company from the CEO – while there’s an almost zero per cent chance of a male CEO being targeted. The “first woman to lead” a large corporation might positive for marketing purposes, and will surely spike interest from media outlets, but such coverage ultimately increases the likelihood of shareholder activism against the company’s head by another 31 per cent. If journalists keep mentioning, time and again, the CEO’s name, that number grows to more than 96 per cent. This occurs despite a female CEO delivering 34 per cent more revenue to shareholders than a male counterpart.
Which numbers are right? Which ones should we believe?
Next week, Washingtonians will decide which ones are more important to them. In light of the case against Harvard University making its way up to the nation’s highest court, where none of the five “conservative” Justices seem necessarily destined to support the policy, the referendum on I-1000 offers voters a rare opportunity to perhaps alter the course of action. The fight in Washington State is already the most important news regarding education, wealth, and power in a year that included a college admissions scandal involving white Americans, e.g., Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin. State officials believe it could take days until the votes are all counted. No matter the tally, Referendum 88’s final numbers will be absolute.