Affirmative Action and Merit

The Supreme Court is set next week to hear the affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Many people are troubled by affirmative action because they are convinced that it means less qualified (non-white) students are admitted over more qualified (white) ones. To them, that just seems unfair. (One may wonder how it compares to the unfairness of a public education system that generally offers much better schooling to suburban (white) students.)

In any case, how reliable is their measurement of merit? As an initial matter, if diversity in itself is valuable, then the ability to add to it makes you more qualified then someone who cannot. Of course, what people usually have in mind are test scores, grades, and recommendations. Yet do the best grades and recommendations, for example, necessarily go to the best students? Studies on unconscious biases suggest the answer may be no. Take the most recent entry in a long series of studies revealing that identical qualifications are evaluated differently based on the race or sex of a candidate. In this randomized double-blind Yale study, science professors were asked to evaluate men’s and women’s resumes. The resumes were exactly the same except that some bore a man’s name (John) and some bore a woman’s (Jennifer). Both men and women rated the male candidates higher, and were willing to pay them more. Again, these were the exact same resumes. It is not a huge leap to think the same kind unconscious bias regularly occurs in classrooms across the country — and this is only one way that unconscious bias might lead to unfair assessments.

Granted, affirmative action may be a crude way to compensate for structural inequality and unconscious biases. But realistically, what are the alternatives?

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14 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Is the fact that a wrong is sometimes committed unconsciously a good reason to commit it in an organized and systematic fashion, rather than try to stop people from committing it at all?

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    Can’t the Yale study be interpreted in two very different ways?

    If you support affirmative action, you can say the study shows the need for affirmative action because both men and women employers judged the women applicants less qualified when their qualifications were equal on paper. If you oppose affirmative action, on the other hand, you can say the study shows the failings of affirmative affirmative action because it has systematically undermined the credibility of the group that is the intended beneficiary of affirmative action even among that group.

    To be clear, I’m not taking a position on which is right, but I think you can make either argument depending on your priors.

  3. Larry Rosenthal says:

    I too find this a very curious argument. If the Yale study is thought to prove that female or minority applicants to colleges or graduate schools do not receive nondiscriminatory consideration in the application process or when receiving the grades and standardized test scores that are the primary basis for admissions decisions (rather a stretch from the cited study’s actual finding but put that aside), isn’t the answer to identify nondiscriminatory methods for undertaking these types of evaluations (such as blind admissions procedures or anonymous grading) rather than adopting what Professor Corbin acknowledges is “a crude way to compensate for structural inequality and unconscious biases”?

    Larry Rosenthal
    Chapman University School of Law

  4. Caroline Mala Corbin says:

    Good morning!
    Thanks for the interesting comments.

    Brett: I completely agree that the ideal way to address structural inequality and unconscious discrimination is to, well, fundamentally restructure our education system to eliminate gross disparities in educational quality, and to eliminate the unconscious stereotypes that lead to the type of unconscious biases that have been so well documented. The problem is that neither are going to happen any time soon. So what do we do in the meantime?

    Larry: You mention blind admissions as one possible solution. That actually worked really well for orchestra hiring. After orchestras switched to blind auditions with screens, the percentage of women hired increased dramatically. See, e.g., Claudia Goldin & Cecilia Rouse, Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of Blind Auditions of Female Musicians (1997). As for admission to college, do you think high schools could successfully switch to blind grading? Would it mean that college admissions would have to eliminate recommendations? Would colleges have to give up on their attempt to achieve diversity across a range of dimensions, and just admit by blind grades?

    Orin: Well, assuming you can blame negative stereotypes on affirmative action, the empirical question of whether affirmative action is more likely to perpetuate stereotypes or undermine them is an interesting one. If people were more willing to question the reliability of our “merit” measurements, the former would be less likely. As for the latter, it has been shown that knowing and interacting with the stereotyped Other is one of the best ways to help shake some of those stereotypes. If anyone has knowledge of studies that have addressed this question, please chime in. I have to go prep for class!


  5. Jimbino says:

    Though I am an opponent of Affirmative Action, I was awarded the only “Hispanic” scholarship of my UT Law School class. I am “Hispanic” by virtue of my birth as an American citizen to White American parents in Asunción, Paraguay.

    Born into a family of educators, I was already a National Merit Scholar with an advanced degree in physics from U of Chicago and didn’t find out I was “Hispanic” until my second year in law school.

    “Diversity” is a joke. I am of Irish/English extraction, fair-skinned and blue-eyed. What could possibly serve “diversity” more than to award the Hispanic scholarship to a brilliant, fair-skinned, blue-eyed White Irish guy with a stellar preparation at a top suburban high school and world-class university?

  6. Orin Kerr says:

    Caroline, I agree it’s an interesting question, but I think it’s worth noting that you seem to be assuming the answer to the underlying dispute. Your assumption is that expectations of difference are “negative stereotypes” that can be shaken by “interacting with the stereotyped Other.” But whether the opponents of affirmative action are right or wrong, their argument is that the expectations of difference are not stereotypes at all: Rather, they are reflections of actual experience with difference caused by affirmative action. So in the case of the Yale study, the thinking would be that women employers expected women applicants to be less qualified not because these women employers needed to shake their stereotypes of “the Other” but because they had actually experienced different levels in ability.

    I have no idea which view is right, but I think it’s worth pointing out that there are two plausible perspectives on the question.

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    (Oh, and my apologies if I am misreading your comment. Now that I read it over again, you may not be assuming the answer but rather just suggesting it as a possibility. Sorry for that aspect of my comment if so.)

  8. Piper says:

    What Orin Kerr said.

    Also, with respect to the “unfairness of a public education system that generally offers much better schooling to suburban (white) students,” you appear to be recapitulating a common error, that of confusing inputs and outputs.

    For whatever strange reason, the American definition of a “good school” is one in which a large proportion of the *students* get high scores on standardized tests. The quality of the teachers, or of the facilities, is not measured as a component of “school goodness” except through the very weak proxy of the students’ scores. (Decades of research in the US have always shown that student academic test scores are strongly predicted by family background but only weakly predicted by measures of teacher or school-facilities quality– or indeed, any other “environmental” measures.)

    Of course all parents want each of their children to go to a “good school” but that’s a Lake Wobegon fantasy– it might be possible to send “all children” to an average school, but they can’t all go to an “above average” school when the children in the school determine its rank.

    Sadly, hardly any school with a large proportion of black students can be a “good school” because scores on academic tests reflect test-taker’s IQ’s and blacks have much lower IQ’s on the average than whites in America (the American mean black IQ is a full standard deviation below the mean white IQ). Ipso facto, adding black students (other than students screened in advance for high intelligence) to a school reduces that school’s “goodness” as measured by giving standardized academic tests to the students.

    (Please avoid the common error of assuming that academic test scores reflect parental wealth (or “SES,” “socio-economic status”) instead of academic ability. As the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education wrote back in 2005, “there is a major flaw in the thesis that income differences explain the racial gap…” See . Sadly, that JBHE article goes on to explain the “gap” by noting that young black students take fewer advanced courses than white students– again confusing input and output– blacks take fewer advanced courses because they are less capable, not because teachers and school administrators are biased against them. Indeed, any American teacher or school administrator who invented any way to get more black students to pass advanced courses would win the highest praise and rewards the American school system and public could bestow.)

    As revealed most dramatically by the Kansas City school “experiment” (see for a description), no amount of money spent on facilities or new teachers can alter the personal abilities of students. KC was not a one-off. No large-scale intervention in American school facilities or teacher training and recruitment has ever “closed the gap.”

    So long as the “goodness” of schools is measured by giving academic tests (which are unavoidably proxies for IQ tests) to the students, low-IQ students will invariably be found in “less-good” schools– the very presence of low-IQ students reduces American-type “school goodness.” This is why transferring or busing low-IQ students to a “good” school reduces that school’s “goodness,” and why busing high-IQ students to a “bad” school increases its “goodness.”

  9. David Schraub says:

    Orin: Recognizing that you are not taking a side but just presenting an argument, I’m confused about how the alternative causal story you’re telling works. I imagine we all agree that the bias effect found here was present in mid-20th century, before these affirmative action programs existed and when de jure or open discrimination was permitted. That is to say, if we ran this study before AA existed, we’d see the same effect — women rated lower than equally qualified men — and that effect would be caused by gender prejudice.

    Your argument is that the identical effect today, though, might have a different cause (instead of gender prejudice, a “reduction in credibility” caused by AA). The competing explanations, in other words, are that gender prejudice went away at some point but the baton was picked up by AA so seamlessly that we can’t notice a difference in outcomes, versus the simpler explanation that the original effect is still resulting from the original cause.

    I’m not saying that argument is impossible to believe, but it seems very implausible (if for no other reason than I don’t know where women got this reservoir of “credibility” that AA is supposedly draining in the first place, given our admission that the pre-AA starting point viewed women prejudicially). Given our knowledge about the psychology of prejudice latching onto facially plausible or ambiguous stories as ways of harmonizing ingrained prejudices with conscious egalitarian beliefs, it seems more plausible that “I view women skeptically because AA has reduced their credibility” is less likely to be the actual driving causal force, and more likely to be the publicly presented facade that shields (both to the public and, probably, to the conscious mind of the speaker) the actual underlying cause of prejudice.

  10. Orin Kerr says:


    Looking back on it, that explanation was prompted by my reading of a Facebook status update by a female professor I know that was posted shortly before this post appeared. My friend the professor was rather angrily discussing how affirmative action for women in math and the hard sciences was so egregious that women couldn’t really compete with the men in their programs. According to this professor, it was known and understood by everyone in math and the hard sciences that there was a different standard for men and women: The standard for giving the same credentials — in this case, admission to the same Ph.D. program — was different, which according to my friend was incredibly unfair to women who then couldn’t compete on an equal footing.

    Maybe my facebook friend is really anti-women and was just posting this as a facade; maybe she has a false consciousness, as you suggest. Also, maybe she is just flat out wrong about the common wisdom. I personally have no idea. But the alternative causal story I suggested is just that this female professor is accurately recounting the common wisdom in math and the hard sciences, which at least seemed enough of a possibility to flag. (If you’d like me to put you in touch with her, I’d be happy to — just send me an e-mail.)

  11. Orin Kerr says:

    Oh, and to be clear, I don’t think this is an identical effect: In particular, the most surprising finding in the Yale study — at least based on the summary posted at the link — is that women employers had the same view as did male employers. My sense is that this would be new, although I’m not at all an expert in the theory of affirmative action.

  12. Evil Pundit says:

    An alternative explanation for the persistence of the gap in perceptions would be that, on average, women really are less capable than men in certain areas (and more capable in others).

    In this theory, the stereotype will always persist because it reflects an actual phenomenon.

  13. A.J. Sutter says:

    @Evil: Women less capable than men at getting prostate cancer = actual phenomenon. Women less capable than men at math = socially-constructed “phenomenon.” This includes many aspects of what constitutes capability. (Ludwik Fleck might have counseled us to be skeptical about the cancer, too.)

    Orin’s narrative isn’t clear about the nature of the women’s difficulty to compete in that Ph.D. program. E.g., could it be because of discrimination arising from the perception that they are less well-prepared? Is it because they really don’t know how, say, to solve elliptic integrals or to generalize Perelman’s Ricci flow with surgery (as if lots of men would, either)? If so, could the problem be that there are many fewer women candidates in some science fields because of a consistent pattern of discouragement during school and college, resulting in a small candidate pool of motivated women, with a higher dispersion in their math ability? (I know from my own male experience as someone who’s been reading academic and professional literature in math and several sciences for decades that interest isn’t necessarily matched by skill or intuition.) Or do the difficulties arise because of how the program is structured for participants? Cf. law firm expectations for partner-track associate workload, or corporate programs, such as here in Japan, that require executives to relocate without their families. Eppur si muove: these obstacles notwithstanding, I also know plenty of highly capable and successful women with Ph.D.s in the hard sciences.

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    I think that whether or not any given phenomenon is “socially constructed” is properly an empirical question.