"An American Tragedy"
March 28, 2001 2:04 AM   Subscribe

"An American Tragedy" The University of Michigan Law School's use of race in the admission process is declared unconstitutional. In making his decision, Judge Friedman found that the law school relied on an unwritten policy to maintain a "critical mass" of minority students of between 11 percent and 17 percent -- in essence, a quota. His 90-page opinion also said the policy was too vague and "places a very heavy emphasis on an applicant's race in deciding whether to accept or reject."
posted by JFunk2800 (35 comments total)
Can't we just cut-n'paste in the usual Mefi response?

Mine is: Woohoo!
posted by holloway at 2:10 AM on March 28, 2001

Here is the Judge's full ruling on the case if anyone is interested.
posted by JFunk2800 at 2:23 AM on March 28, 2001

mine is: "hmm" as I scratch my head and my ass at the same time.
posted by chaz at 2:33 AM on March 28, 2001

I am old enough to remember when there were quotas established at the ivy league schools in order to make sure they did not get "too many" Jews admitted and thus "unbalance" schools
The policy just struck down at this law school is a reversal: make sure sufficient numbers of a give group are admitted.
As I had mentioned a few days ago, our govt did at one time have a policy that gave preferential treatment for jobs to American Indians many years ago before this issue came up for other groups.
I have no position on this one way or the other till my wife tells me later what my position should be.
posted by Postroad at 3:33 AM on March 28, 2001

A law school quota is a bit different from a generic university quota though. It seems like every group should have a chance to represent themselves and their interests from within the legal system to ensure that they are treated fairly in every other sector.

Just a thought....perhaps, with law school only, what we need is more quotas, not less. They should aim to admit a certain percentage of white men, a certain percentage of white women, etc, etc....according to population statistics. The problem, of course, is where does it end? Which groups should be represented, which minorities should be recognized as such, etc....sounds awfully complicated.

So if we don't want to go that far with it, what's so wrong about an informal system to help achieve a balance of minorities? It sounds to me like the woman in the article was just upset she didn't get in, looked around for someone to blame, and, as tradition dictates, chose a minority.
posted by u.n. owen at 4:23 AM on March 28, 2001

So if we don't want to go that far with it, what's so wrong about an informal system to help achieve a balance of minorities?

What's so wrong? It's "reverse" discrimination, that's what. The best solution to the problem would be to find a way to shield admissions personnel from any qualifying characteristics about applicants for as long as possible - force them to choose on the basis of merit without regard to sex, race, religion, what-have-you. Yes, of course it would be hard to do, but there's no denying it would be the fairest way to ensure that the most qualified people were admitted.
posted by m.polo at 4:59 AM on March 28, 2001

m. polo,
I would agree with you if I believed that all groups have equal opportunities to reach the same levels of achievement up to the admissions process. But I don't think that's the case. If certain minority groups make up a larger proportion of people living below the poverty level and their parents are struggling to survive, those kids don't have the same opportunities as rich kids with their own computers. Right now in the U.S. income is still correlated with race, and parental income is correlated with educational opportunity (think of test prep courses for example. The ones I used to teach for the SAT cost $1,000. And the company I worked for wouldn't let me set up a volunteer program to teach their strategies in poor schools).
posted by u.n. owen at 5:15 AM on March 28, 2001

Why is that always the response? If the educational system is broken, then for heaven's sake fix it - and while you're at it, don't do it by punishing the people who are arguably the best qualified, except they're the wrong friggin' color by your standards. Can you even hear what you are saying there? "Sorry, but even though your grades, your written skills and your verbal skills are amongst the best we've seen, we've decided not to admit you because we have enough of your color here this year." Sounds a lot like, "Sorry, but even though you have the money and it's ninety-eight degrees outside, we're not going to sell you a cold drink because of your color."
posted by m.polo at 5:23 AM on March 28, 2001

Again, I have to disagree with you. I believe that, as we have systematically discriminated against a group of people for hundreds of years and continue to unsystematically discriminate, we have to take certain steps to stop it. It's a question of reversing the discrimination, not reverse discrimination. (Geez, I sound like Jesse Jackson here). But my point is that we would have had to reach a 'midpoint' first where everything is fair before 'reverse descrimination' could become a reality. I don't think we've reached that midpoint yet.

To further your 'cold drink' example - well, it's not that there is a certain price for a drink and if you can pay it you get one. It's more like, there are a certain number of drinks available and you have to bid to see if you get one. What if one person worked and scrimped and saved for years and was able to save 99 cents for a drink. Another pulls a dollar out of his back pocket. Which one should get the drink? Well, it just depends on your definition of fair.

I'm not convinced that quotas are the way to go, either in general or specifically for law school. But I do think something should be done.

m. polo, I'm afraid you and I are going to have to agree to disagree on this point. But I am curious, how would you propose we fix the educational system so that it's fair for everyone?
posted by u.n. owen at 5:43 AM on March 28, 2001

I don't know I never got this quota thing. It's very discriminative. It could be right, or it could be wrong, there is no objection on discrimination though. Hmm.. what happens when say the average stereotype situation were to be flipped? A poor white student, an immigrant from... Kosovo wants to get in, his grades are great and he is turned down because a son of a rich black businessman has worse grades but is needed to get in? An unlikely scenario, sure, but still, it COULD happen.

I don't know how to fix everything, but what are the racism statistics? Are there any? I'd imagine they'd be rather hard to obtain. From what I've heard it has gone down considerably.
posted by tiaka at 6:04 AM on March 28, 2001

A few days ago the New York Times ran an article which pointed out that within a very short time women would be a majority rather than a minority at laws schools. Not sure how this fits or does not fit into commetns being made but may be worth considering.
posted by Postroad at 6:11 AM on March 28, 2001

UNOwen, ever heard the phrase "Two wrongs don't make a right"? Compounding the sins of the past by sinning in the present doesn't add up to a good deal for anybody. (Particularly since you've chosen to do what in my experience most proponents of affirmative action do when challenged to address the source of the problem - fundamentally unbalanced education for different economic groups - you've simply ignored me and gone on beating the "we done 'em wrong and we owes 'em" drum...)
posted by m.polo at 6:37 AM on March 28, 2001


you've simply ignored me

No I didn't ignore you. I considered what you said and I disagree, and I've addressed the points that I disagree on.

you've chosen to do what in my experience most proponents of affirmative action do when challenged to address the source of the problem

I'm the one who asked you what your solution would be if you disagree so strongly with quotas. In my opinion, you chose to ignore me by not even trying to answer the question.

beating the "we done 'em wrong and we owes 'em" drum

And I've said that the quota solution perhaps isn't the right way to go. I don't see how you can say I'm beating any drum.
posted by u.n. owen at 6:52 AM on March 28, 2001

My attorney needs to know the law... not be just like me.
posted by techgnollogic at 7:01 AM on March 28, 2001

> But my point is that we would have had to reach a
> 'midpoint' first where everything is fair before
> 'reverse descrimination' could become a reality. I
> don't think we've reached that midpoint yet.

We will never, ever, ever be able to agree whether we've reached the "level playing field." I foresee the Al Sharpton of 3000 AD hollering "We're not there yet, we're not there yet" and the Rush Limbaugh of 3000 AD hollering back "We've been there for a thousand years."

> The best solution to the problem would be to find a way
> to shield admissions personnel from any qualifying
> characteristics about applicants for as long as possible
> - force them to choose on the basis of merit without
> regard to sex, race, religion, what-have-you.

Give the admissions folks data on the applicant's socioeconomic background -- family income, how many people the income has to support, special problems (single working parent, no health insurance, family owes $100,000 for little sister's open-heart, etc.) That kind of data can be given in a colorblind manner.

Race is a red herring -- it really doesn't matter what particular group of poor and disadvantaged people you come from: urban blacks, Hispanic migrant workers, Appalachian coal miners. The effects of being poor account for 99% of the damage a person's race/ethnicity does to that person's equality of opportunity.
posted by jfuller at 7:12 AM on March 28, 2001

All very interesting. For your consideration:

Perhaps one could consider that being accepted to a school which limits its yearly number of admissions means that discrimination must occur.

The obvious elements to discern for any applicant might first be test scores, grades etc., but the process goes well beyond objective criteria. Some of the considerations for acceptance will inevitably be subjective: what contribution will the prospective student offer to the program and their classmates?

My background: I received my master's degree in Architecure from Yale. My BArch from the University of Cincinnati. I taught architecture at Hampton University for one year.

I know of some candidates who were not accepted to the Yale program who, one could argue, should maybe have been accepted over those who were. The final mix of those who were accepted (and agreed to attend mind you--many have more than one choice among the best programs in the country) is intended to contribute to a rich and varied environment which will be for the benefit of all.

Quotas may be a problem, but discerning applicants on the basis of background is not automatically a negative idea.

Does this make any sense? It did when I started typing but I think I've only ended with potato soup.
posted by Dick Paris at 7:31 AM on March 28, 2001

It was my understanding from previous rulings at various levels that even if race can't be used as a factor in deciding admissions, other factors can be considered. Thus, it remains possible to construct an admissions policy that addresses inequities without using race.

I think it is arguably racist to say that we should give preference to people simply based on their ethnicities. The child of a black professional, for example, will likely have had many more educational opportunities than the child of a southern dirt farmer.

It's possible, albeit difficult, to determine which school districts provide the least opportunities and to adjust admissions standards based on that information. If there turns out to be a correlation between race and opportunity, that would simply point out a problem to be worked on. But the racial correlation would certainly not be absolute.

I guess what I'd say to M.Polo and other critics of all affirmative action is that it's a law schools job to produce the best lawyers possible and that test scores and grades alone may not always be the best indication. If a person with lower scores had limited opportunities, he or she may very well turn out to be a better lawyer than someone who had higher test scores because of the benefit of better facilities and teachers, and because of test prep courses.

To the extent that the accident of where and to whom you were born can be factored out, I think schools should try to do so. To me, that's in keeping with American notions of fairness.
posted by anapestic at 7:49 AM on March 28, 2001

if quotas are such a great thing, i think basketball needs to utilize them. it is obvious that the NBA is biased when it comes to the "vertically challenged". from now on, every team must have one starter that is less than 5' 5" tall and 20% of the bench must be under 6'. these men didn't choose to be short, they were born like that.

i also don't think that it is fair that you have to possess "skills" in order to play pro ball, but i'll address that at a later time.
posted by jonny rook at 7:57 AM on March 28, 2001

Expanding on Anapestic's comments: Law school admissions are heavily based on LSAT scores; is there any evidence as to whether or not LSAT score predict law school performance?

I tend to be skeptical of standardized tests in general, although I can understand why schools use them. If, to construct a hypothetical situation, blacks and whites who perform equally well in law score tended to, in aggregate, perform differently on the standardized test used to control admissions, is that a basis utilizing for race-weighted test scores? On the SAT, I know that (at least a few years ago) men tended to outperform women on the math section of the exam, and I know that women tend to get slightly better grades in college than men (although I can't say that there's a one-to-one correspondence there, as men tend to be in the majority in engineering department, which have a reputation for being less subject to grade inflation).

But at least in theory, do anti-affirmative-action people feel that one could weight test scores for race, gender, economic class, etcetera, so long as one had the goal of predicting actual performance?
posted by snarkout at 8:45 AM on March 28, 2001

the quotas i'd like to see are a certain amount of dollars spent per-kid from K-12 in every school in the country, no exceptions.

if you remove - or at least radically diminish - educational inequality from the very start then colleges and grad schools can focus on what matters: who makes the grade.

ps - i caught 30 seconds of a female lawyer vociferously (and defensively) addressing this issue on CNN this morning. her angry and defensive take on the issue included the assertion that "this decision will place minority students who have already benefitted from affirmative action in a very awkward situation" (to paraphrase). i thought that was conjecture as well as a pretty weak point.
posted by subpixel at 8:45 AM on March 28, 2001

Speaking of basketball, johnny rook, Walter Williams made a brilliant point:

"I, for one, have confidence that if black youngsters spent as much time and effort studying math and English as some of them spend playing basketball, they'd produce the same excellence in math and English. The fact racism kept blacks out of college and professional basketball and football years ago doesn't stop us from today's domination. And the reason isn't affirmative action, it's excellence."
posted by frednorman at 8:49 AM on March 28, 2001

UNOwen, I have never said I had a solution to the problem of inequitable education at the levels below university. I'm simply saying that continuing to use race as a primary selector at the university level as a solution to the problem of inequitable education at the lower levels compounds the wrong exponentially, it doesn't right it and I remain deeply opposed to it.

Others here, however, do have solutions. subpxiel, for instance, suggests

the quotas i'd like to see are a certain amount of dollars spent per-kid from K-12 in every school in the country, no exceptions.

Personally, I'd strongly support that position because it could simply eliminate the debate we're having about the solution of race-based admissions.
posted by m.polo at 8:49 AM on March 28, 2001

m.polo: according to Walter Williams again, Washington, D.C., ranks second in spending and 49th in achievement.
posted by frednorman at 8:54 AM on March 28, 2001

according to Walter Williams again, Washington, D.C., ranks second in spending and 49th in achievement.

I'd be the last to argue that DC gets all the bang it should for its buck, but Williams statistic is misleading.

It doesn't make sense to compare DC's educational spending to States' spending. You should really compare DC to other urban school systems. You also need to factor in the cost of living in DC vs. other areas.

I think if you look at schools on a district-by-district basis, you'll likely find a relatively strong correlation between spending and achievement.

Still, DC schools suck. There has been a history of mismanagement, in-fighting on the board of education, and apathy. And there's the same sort of divide between rich and poor that there is in the deep south. Parents with money send their kids to private schools.
posted by anapestic at 9:57 AM on March 28, 2001

The District also has the highest percentage of children living below the poverty line in the nation if you pretend it's a state. Williams' argument that "academic achievement is the lowest in cities where the mayor, superintendent of schools, and most principals and teachers are black, such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Detroit" is specious unless he's adjusting for variations in parental income level, which is an excellent predictor of academic success. I bet the students in Beverly Hills will do better than the ones in East Compton, regardless of how much money you throw at East Compton.
posted by snarkout at 10:06 AM on March 28, 2001

Which brings me back to my question regarding weighted test scores, and whether they're a better predictor of academic success than raw scores. I can't pretend that I know the answer to that one.
posted by snarkout at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2001

Whatever solution the law school elects to pursue, it must be race neutral," Friedman wrote. "An admissions policy that treats any applicants differently from others on account of their race is unfair and unconstitutional."

Amen Brother ! You can't fight racism with reverse racism.
posted by a3matrix at 12:23 PM on March 28, 2001

I do believe, for the reasons already stated very well by u.n. owen, in affirmative action -- but I'm not so sure that less-qualified people of color should be favored. Race, rather, should be used as a tie-breaking factor. Unfortunately, I know that the matter is more complicated than that, considering that some of the other factors are bound to be influenced by race. For example, the institutional racism in our public school system is going to work against higher-ed applicants who are people of color, and it's going to favor the white applicants. So those test scores and grades, for example, are not going free of racial influence. But how far do you go? Which factors are affected by race, and how? And what do you do then? Before I can answer those questions, I need to do some more reading--and I'm even talking a little bit out the ass here, since I don't know very much about how U. Mich Law was applying the policy that was struck down.

As for this:

the quotas i'd like to see are a certain amount of dollars spent per-kid from K-12 in every school in the country, no exceptions.

That would certainly help. But there's more to it than that. Class issues are definitely a problem, but fixing them doesn't automatically fix racial issues, as some in this thread have argued. For example, allocating equal money won't improve racial integration in schools. It won't put more people of color in teaching positions. It won't update curricula to make them speak to other races. It won't eliminate racist teachers. And these are all issues that affect student performance, don't you think?
posted by nedlog at 12:30 PM on March 28, 2001

I have a question: are there any studies that test the influence of race on academic performace, while controlling for quality of local schools, family structure, family income, neighborhood status?

Maybe it's a personal fault, but I just have trouble believing that the "institutional racism" cited in these types of discussions is 100% caused by racial discrimination (which are, unfortunately, disproportionately correlated to race). I'm sure some of it may be, but a lot of the disadvantage is due to social and economic factors. Why don't we use those factors in higher-education admission decisions? Using race is unfair because race alone means nothing.
posted by daveadams at 2:54 PM on March 28, 2001

These lower court rulings, and the Supremes' upholding of them (the 5th in N.O. put out a replica of this opinion a couple of years ago), seem a bit daffy in light of the high court's decision in Ayers v. Mississippi of the early '90s. That one was a 20 year old case that came to trial after the plaintiff had died. He had claimed that Miss. ran two college systems, one for blacks and another for whites. Much had changed since the '73 filing, but not the predominant racial makeup of the universities. Anyway, the court ruled 9-0 that Miss. was operating a segregated system, although it balked at giving many specific measures for how the state could best go about desegregating them. This was said to be a monumental case, would seriously impact at least 19 states. Then comes the 5th's anti-law school quotas ruling. Go figure.

Granted, the court did say that the SAT did need to be emphasized less, blah blah. But if you'll note the de-emphasizing of the SAT has come under attack by some of the same foes of quotas -- conservative and liberal alike. I can see the quota problems, but there needs to be a consensus somewhere, for crying out loud. Or will there ever be? Will any sensible solution to such quadaries as the one faced by Miss. come under attack as reverse racism?
posted by raysmj at 3:18 PM on March 28, 2001

Peripheral to the arguement, I recall a few years back getting into an on-line discussion about preferential treatment. Inoted that ex military men were given "extra" points on civil service exams, a preference.
I was told that this was ok because the serviceman deserved an award of some sort for having served his nation.
I responded (twitting) that I grew up believing that to serve your nation was a duty and an honor rather than something for which you could expect a reward.
He called me a commie!
posted by Postroad at 3:31 PM on March 28, 2001

According to the article, applicants were awarded an additional 20 points (out of a possible 150 points, with 110 needed for admission) if they were of the 'appropriate' race. Not if you were 'disadvantaged' in a social or economic sense. Just on the colour of your skin. The message - 'you're black, so you must be disadvantaged'.

Or perhaps 'you're black, so rather than take a little extra time to evaluate the rest of your personal circumstances to see if they warrant special intervention as they do for so many Americans, black AND white, we'll just adopt a risk management approach, give you 20 points and cover all our bases. Welcome aboard, Dr Theodore Huxtable'.

So I'm Fred. I'm one of the four out of five African Americans who don't live in an inner-city area. I live in one of the 130-odd city areas where median African-American incomes exceed white median incomes. I went to a good school. Both of my parents have jobs.

I also got 15 points worth of grades less than John, who lives in the same town I do, whose parents earn what mine do, and who went to the same school as me.

However, I'm black and he's white. When I tick that African American box, I get an extra 20 points. The level of melatonin in my skin just got me jumped five points past his 15 points worth of hard work and academic achievement.

We both get above the 110 point mark, but I'm 5 points ahead by an accident of my birth, and there are only so many places available, and sorry John, but when we ranked 'em highest to lowest, the cutoff was 116 this year. Have fun in community college.

Meanwhile, Eddy is sleeping in a shelter. He's smart, and he wanted to succeed in school, but his dad beat him and his mom, and killed some guy, and now he's in jail, and his mom's a whore, and he couldn't take living at home with all those guys and their guns and their needles coming around, and he can't go to school because he has nothing to wear, no money for the bus, and hell, there are just as many crackheads and guns there as at home anyway. Eddy could be black. He could be white. He could be Hispanic. He sure as hell ain't gonna be a lawyer. Where's affirmative action for Eddy? Sorry - we spent it all on 'disadvantaged' kids who finished high school.

So now Fred is failing, because law really is just a little bit over his head, not because he's black, but because he's really a few points less smarter/less studious than somebody needs to be to study law. John is at community college, fuming - he knows he got better grades than Fred, and that Fred's at law school, and dammit if his father wasn't right, those goddamn niggers do get everything. And Eddy's - well, he's just hungry, and cold, and the booze doesn't numb the pain anymore, and he foiund this rock on a dead homeless guy, and maybe it'll take it all away.

Affirmative action - everybody wins!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:52 PM on March 28, 2001

My take on this is that most applicants into law school have gone to college and that having a college education already levels the playing field for these applicants, making affirmative action unnecessary and insulting (in assuming that a minority having graduated from a top notch college still needs some sort of help).
posted by gyc at 4:03 PM on March 28, 2001

One depressing thing I've noticed is a change in attitudes - one of the quotes in the news coverage was from a defense attorney:
We don't need any institutions in this society to be reserved for white people alone

At the risk of being labeled insensitive scum, am I the only one who finds that an incredibly racist remark? Wasn't it relatively recently that remarks like those would have come from the Grand Dragon of the KKK implying that blacks were incapable of the intellectual performance on par with whites? An attorney is claiming that judging strictly by academic standards will keep non-whites out of colleges? In 2001? And this is the person claims they're helping those non-whites?

And, while I'm on the subject, why isn't this effort being directed towards improving middle/high schools? Wouldn't the $4.3 million and counting wasted on this case might have been better spent on scholarships or educational programs rather than trying to cure the symptoms of bad schools? That's the only way to solve the imbalance. Of course, a real solution would cause some crusaders to have to find other jobs...

posted by adamsc at 10:13 PM on March 28, 2001

It sounds like this admission policy was very poorly conceived -- and not affirmative action at all. Affirmative action, as nedlog points out, uses race only as a tie-breaker between otherwise qualified candidates. Now, if a school is at all competetive (suggesting that a greater number of qualified candidates apply than are admitted) then there's a question of how to apply an affirmative action-based admissions policy to the pool of applicants. But in any case, weighting someone's race vs. their qualifications is not the way to go.

Race is a good tie-breaker in many ways. Daveadams says "race alone means nothing." I say that's only half the truth. Race is, of course, a fiction. There is no biological basis for categorizing folks as caucasoid, mongoloid, negroid, and so on. On the other hand though it is a fiction. Which is to say, it is a story we tell ourselves. Socially, it is very real -- palpable in the intense emotions discussions such as these inspire. This is the reality that affirmative action policies are trying to take into account.

I don't know that an admissions office ought to be considering an applicant's socio-economic status at all... isn't that the financial aid department's forte?
posted by sudama at 11:48 PM on March 28, 2001

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