Saturday, June 30, 2018

Affirmative Action for Actual Disadvantages

John McWhorter is my favorite linguistics professor to read, or to listen to on The Great Courses. This essay on affirmative action for black and Latino students is excellent.  Because he is a linguist, he cares about the meanings of words and is precise with them. It puts him rather at odds with some other academics, especially at Berkeley.
Recall that we are usually told that whites harbor subconscious but powerful biases against blacks as people. If this is true, then it only makes clearer how artificial and sinister these “personality” rankings at Harvard have been, indirectly contravening how Implicit Association Tests so commonly indicate black people are perceived. This is, in a word, a hustle. Yet all indications—such as a memo from Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust—are that Harvard will respond with dissimulations, pretending not to be doing to Asian students exactly what was done to tamp down Jewish admissions until well into the previous century.
One of his points for years is that treating black and Latino students as inherently poor and disadvantaged is an insult to their parents and grandparents who fought their way into the middle and upper classes. It perpetuates a stereotype of suffering and oppression. The Ivies discriminate against the poor, not the brown.


RichardJohnson said...

One of his points for years is that treating black and Latino students as inherently poor and disadvantaged is an insult to their parents and grandparents who fought their way into the middle and upper classes. It perpetuates a stereotype of suffering and oppression. The Ivies discriminate against the poor, not the brown.

Thomas Sowell, in Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, makes the point that the beneficiaries of affirmative action programs tend to be the better off of the targeted group.

In support of Sowell's point, consider the experience of Cedric Jennings, from a single parent household in Washington DC. Against all odds, he worked hard to achieve in math at his high school, even though his focus on academic achievement made him a pariah among his peers.

His hard work paid off when he was admitted to an affirmative action summer program at MIT. Wikipedia has a good summary of Ron Suskind's book about Cedric Jennings's experiences. A Hope in the Unseen. One would believe that as the son of a poor, single parent from Washington DC attending a very poor high school, that Cederic Jennings would find himself among his peers at the MIT summer program. Not so.

In his junior year, Cedric is admitted to the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He believes this is the start of a new life for him, but when summer arrives he finds the classes much more difficult than his fellow MITES students who attended better schools and were better versed in math and science. Though he makes friends at MIT, he also sees that his ghetto background sets him apart from them. At the end of the program, Cedric is told by faculty director Leon Trilling that he would not be welcome in MIT as a college student.

The primary beneficiaries of the MIT summer program were the offspring of middle or upper middle college educated parents.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In math especially, I'm guessing that his problem wasn't a bad highschool and their advantage good ones. The comments about the book at Amazon focus on how this shows what a good thing affirmative action is. Though inspiring, it looks like it gives evidence of the opposite. He was overmatched intellectually and would have been happier at a less-elite school. Apparently his determination was top-drawer and forced it through, but in Education. He went on to get Masters degrees in Education and Social Work. He seems to be a decent, inspiring chap with above-average intellect and high character. He could have done the same going to Howard, or George Mason, or UVA and had friends as well.

Texan99 said...

And if he had made the grade, he would have spent the rest of his career battling the assumption that he got there only by virtue of quotas, not innate ability. Believe me, it's no picnic being a member of a "protected class" in that context. You can never stop proving yourself, so there's always that extra bit of aggression, which of course creates its own problems.

AVI is right: people with strong math skills routinely overcome a temporary disadvantage from having had less training in primary school. If they don't, the problem probably wasn't the prior training. Math at the MIT level is simply too hard for nearly everyone. A few people will shine if they can just barge through the door somehow, but most will not, for the simple reason that most people by definition aren't in the 99.5% percentile of IQ. It's hard enough to sort people accurately by IQ if all you look at is IQ. If you start trying to use other sorting devices, you'll end up washing out a higher percentage, even if you do identify a few diamonds in the rough you'd otherwise have missed.

RichardJohnson said...

In my case, I can cite examples of both training and inherent ability in the case of math. Before high school, I would have predicted my becoming a historian or political scientist. In high school, I found out that bad experiences with a history teacher turned me off history. A poor math teacher in 9th grade (also a family friend of sorts who came to my mother's memorial service) but a superior New Math textbook that emphasized proofs led me to enjoy math. I could shrug off a poor teacher in math, teaching myself from the very good textbook, but could not shrug off a poor teacher in history. That to me indicates I had more inherent ability in math than in a verbal subject like history. (The math teacher knew her stuff- she was a Phi Beta Kappa math graduate from a flagship state u, but was poor at classroom management.)

For training, consider the New Math program I had in high school that emphasized proofs. Decades later I took an undergrad course in linear algebra. The problem sets and exams involved a lot of proofs. Due to the extensive practice in writing proofs I had in high school, I had no problem getting an A in the course. Over half the class got a D or an F. I suspect they had little practice in writing proofs.

I also suspect that Cedric Jennings got little practice in high school in writing proofs, which would make a math major problematic at an elite university.

Due to mismatch effects, he probably would have been better off at a second tier school.