Sunday, June 10, 2018

Spelling It Out

Affirmative action policies are intended to give underrepresented minority groups an advantage in school admissions, employment or contracting.

The rationale is that minority groups, particularly those with darker skin, have suffered racial discrimination over the course of American history and that special advantages have to be provided to level the playing field for these groups. It is also argued that these minority groups lack the opportunities that caucasian Americans have enjoyed and that affirmative action programs are necessary to insure that opportunities are available for all.

Affirmative actions programs were first initiated in the early 1960's but they did not gain my attention until the the late 1970's when a young white man in his early 30's named Allan Bakke was denied admission to medical school at UC-Davis despite the fact that he had a better academic record and test scores than almost all of the minority applicants that had been admitted under an affirmative action program.

Bakke brought a legal action against the university and his case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 which ruled that the minority quota admissions program should be struck down and Bakke admitted. However, the Court did not go so far as to rule that race could not be considered among other factors in admission decisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has revisited the issue of affirmative action several times over the last 40 years but has generally continued the basic principle in the Bakke decision that outright quota programs are illegal but that race may be considered among a number of factors in respect of obtaining the "educational benefits of diversity" in admission decisions.

In the 2003 Supreme Court decision of Grutter v. Bollinger the court allowed the University of Michigan's affirmative action program to continue but the majority specifically stated that such programs should not be considered permanent.

"The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." 

That was written 15 years ago.

Does that mean that affirmative action programs only have 10 years of life left in them?

I was thinking of all this as I saw the finalists compete in the 2018 National Spelling Bee.

These were the 16 Finalists.

Credit: Getty Images

These are their names, where they are from and the word they spelled correctly to advance to the final round.

Most remarkable.

We hear people throw around the term "white privilege" and statements like the "deck is stacked" against minorities and immigrants in this country. We hear that the color of your skin defines you and makes it hard to succeed in America.

I don't see much "white privilege" in the students on that stage. Most are children of recent immigrants with dark skin whose parents probably did not speak English as their native language. Despite that, these children are the best spellers in America.

These students did not need an affirmative action program to get on that stage. They dedicated themselves and worked hard. They did not allow anything to define them other than their results.

There is also no doubt that they also had supportive parents who encouraged their hard work. Those parents did not tell them that the system was stacked against them. They told them that in America you could achieve anything you set your mind to. They knew better than anyone else the truth of that statement because they had come to the United States for that opportunity---for themselves and their children.

Consider all of this as you think again about the wisdom of affirmative action programs. They have been in place in some form or fashion for over 50 years.

How much have they helped and how much have they hindered the cause of African Americans and other minority groups?

The lack of affirmative action programs does not seem to have hindered the advancement of minority groups from Asia. Asians have generally not been the beneficiary of affirmative action programs.

In fact, Asian Americans now seem to be the group that is suffering the most from affirmative action programs.

Look at this chart that shows admission rates for U.S. medical schools for the period 2013-2016 by race/ethnic group, MCAT scores and college GPA.

If you were Asian and had a MCAT score between 27-29 and a GPA between 3.2-3.8 you only were accepted 20.9% of the time. An African-American with the same profile was 4 times more likely to be accepted (81.2% vs. 20.9%). White students were admitted 29.0% of the time.

At the low end of the qualification scale, Whites and Asians with test scores of 24-26 and GPA's of 3.2--3.39 had almost no chance of admission to medical school. Black students were accepted more than half of the time.

You can better assess the disparity in acceptances by looking at this chart comparing average MCAT scores by race/ethnicity.

Interestingly,  overall medical school acceptance rates for black students is actually lower than that of white students.

How could that be when you look at the chart above?

One-third of all black applicants have MCAT scores below 20. Only 4.7% of white applicants have scores that low.

Why do so many black applicants apply with those low scores when white students do not?

Somehow black students must think that they have a reasonable chance at being accepted despite a MCAT that is totally uncompetitive while white students know to not even think about it.

Where did they get that idea?

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that he had a dream that his children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.

Is that going on in the admission practices at our nation's medical schools?

It does not appear so.

Will affirmative actions programs be finally eliminated within the next decade?

Equity and fairness demand it. Let pure merit be the only measure used.

Those National Spelling Bee finalists prove the point.

These are students of color who come from recent immigrant families of which English is a second language for most of their parents. No affirmative action program put them on that stage.

The affirmative action that got them to the top of their class was their own dedication and hard work.

Nothing more.

You can't spell it out any better than that.

It should be a lesson for all to consider when considering the wisdom of affirmative action programs.

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