Posted by David A. Lehrer
A few days ago we authored an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times regarding fallout from the Trayvon Martin case. In the intervening five days since its publication we have received numerous emails, calls, done media interviews and have read nearly two hundred on-line comments. Most were laudatory, some were nasty and some took issue with our arguments in a civil and rational way.
What has become clear is that, much like a Rorschach test, one will see in the events of the past week what one brings to the issue. That is, those who view the present state of race relations in this country as poor, and far short of where we should be, will interpret virtually everything about the case in light of that world view---Trayvon was racially profiled and “stalked”, the prosecution was botched, the white reaction to the verdict is insensitive, etc. Those who are more sanguine about where the country is in terms of inter-group relations have a very different take on the same set of events.
Obviously, we all have our own prisms that filter how we perceive and interpret issues as laden with policy implications and prescriptions as race, violence, crime rates, etc. The significant challenge for all commentators on the social scene is to recognize the complexity and mystery to so much of human interactions---there are no simple answers or analyses.
In reviewing the various critical communications we have received a common thread emerges---- many critics view virtually all racial disparities in our society as the consequence, directly or indirectly, of discrimination or as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
One correspondent accused us of ignoring and downplaying “the very real evidence about racial disparities in jobs, schools, housing, poverty levels, mortgage lending foreclosures, arrests, convictions, etc.” He cited these data as if the disparities themselves were dispositive evidence of discrimination that needs to be remedied and faulted us for not offering prescriptions that suited him.
Things aren’t always as they seem. What may look self-evident turns out to be far more complicated and nuanced than having a simple causal relation to bigotry and discrimination. Complex issues involving human interactions, socialization, education, socio-economic status etc. aren’t given to clear cut, unambiguous explanations.
Coincidental with our op/ed and the flurry of comments and criticisms, there were several articles this week that pointed out the error of facilely ascribing racial disparities to discrimination without supporting research.
For example, The New York Times published a lengthy article examining the disturbing problem of social mobility in the United States---the challenge of people being able to move out of poverty into the middle class. At first blush it might appear that race is a significant factor in impeding upward mobility given the presence of African Americans in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In fact, the researchers (one of whom is described as being the ‘best academic economist under the age of 40’) found “that education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas” are the key factors. The article noted that “Regions with large black populations had lower mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.” What might seem logical and obvious turns out to be complicated.
A second article this week reported on the “racial wage gap”---the difference in earning between blacks and whites with similar levels of experience and education. The gap is one of the data points that is often cited as evidence of the lingering effects of discrimination, Jim Crow laws, etc. In a counter-intuitive finding the scholars suggest that the gap “is not directly the result of prejudice or, at least, prejudice conventionally defined.”
The cited study found that patterns of interaction, partly shaped by race, are the main cause. When employees in an industry get together informally they share ideas and opportunities---outsiders (minorities in a community who can be black or white depending on the surrounding cohort) tend to have fewer opportunities to interact with similar folks in an informal social setting (“we know that one of the predictors of who you feel comfortable with is whether they are of the same ethnicity”). Another seemingly anomalous conclusion is that the gap increases “by 2.5% for every million person increase in urban population”---the article offers the complex reasons behind this conclusion. The problem does have a racial component, but not one that many lay observers would predict or that seems amenable to governmental intervention.
Disparities in society that break along racial lines are not, ipso facto, evidence of discrimination or the legacy of discrimination. Clearly, many disparities exist that are the result of a complex of causes which may or may not include racial bias and bigotry--- it is simply inaccurate to assume otherwise.
We all would do well to exhibit a little modesty and realize that the world and human interactions are complex, variable and not amenable to single minded answers.
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July 2, 2013 | 4:08 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
The LA Times had an interesting piece yesterday that appears to have been prompted by last week’s US Supreme Court decision in the affirmative action case, Fisher v University of Texas. The headline on the article by Larry Gordon was “UC Programs in lieu of affirmative action show limited success—UC has struggled to enroll more blacks and Latinos since a state ban on race-based admissions, an issue central to a recent Supreme Court decision.”
The article takes its cues from the headline and attempts to document how the University of California’s “color blind” admissions policies since Proposition 209 banned race conscious remedies in 1996 “have only limited success.” “Success” being defined, from the article’s perspective, as increasing black and Latino admissions percentages at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
Had Gordon been interested in offering Times’ readers a fuller (and more accurate) understanding of what has transpired in the 17 years since Prop 209 passed there are ample data that could have easily buttressed a conclusion similar to one The New York Times’ drew in a lengthy article on minority admissions in May of this year,
California was one of the first states to abolish affirmative action, after voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996. Across the University of California system, Latinos fell to 12 percent of newly enrolled state residents in the mid-1990s from more than 15 percent, and blacks declined to 3 percent from 4 percent. At the most competitive campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the decline was much steeper.
Eventually, the numbers rebounded. Until last fall, 25 percent of new students were Latino, reflecting the booming Hispanic population, and 4 percent were black. A similar pattern of decline and recovery followed at other state universities that eliminated race as a factor in admissions.
The New York Times chose not to simply focus on Berkeley and UCLA but the UC system as a whole which has seen African American enrollment jump from 945 (4.2% of all enrollees) in 1995 to 1,416 in 2012 (4.2% of all enrollees), Latino enrollment jump from 3,432 in 1995 (15%) to 8,755 in 2012 (26%) and Asian Americans increase from 7,910 in 1995 (35%) to 13,720 in 2012 (41%). It’s a bit odd that increasing minority enrollment in the system on the scale of 49% (African Americans), 150% (Latinos) and 42% (Asians)---without utilizing race preferences--- is termed a “limited success.”
The only conceivable set of data that would permit that conclusion to be drawn with a straight face is African American admissions to Berkeley and UCLA. Admittedly, a less sunny data set.
It is true that they have lagged behind the general trend in the UC system----Berkeley enrollment of Blacks decreased from 202 in 1995 to 129 in 2012 and Latino enrollees were static (514 compared to 516), while at UCLA the numbers were 259 black enrollees in 1995 compared to 169 in 2012. But they are the two most selective schools in the system and the Times chose only to focus on the percentages of minority enrollees rather than the absolute numbers of enrollees where the increases are significant.
The logic that underpins the Gordon article is that the percentage of African Americans that attended UCLA and Cal pre-209 is somehow sacrosanct and that not matching those numbers is a failure. The piece fails to address the more profound challenges that universities face in admitting applicants with lesser credentials into a difficult and complex environment. Wands can’t be waved, reciting abracadabra doesn’t do it---it’s a tough slog. As The New York Times pointed out, it is a tedious, expensive and long-term process that begins way before the SAT and no one does it better than the UCs (as the NY Times acknowledged). The fact that the percentage of Black students is now matching the pre-209 levels without racial preferences is truly impressive.
One final criticism might be that since Berkeley and UCLA are lower in their percentages of Black enrollees they must be “elitist enclaves” that are unfriendly to diversity. In fact, as we have written in the LA Times, UCLA and Berkeley are the two most socio-economically mixed research universities in the entire nation---nearly 40% of incoming freshman come from low-income families and nearly 40% come from families where neither parent has a four-year degree.
The impression a reader would get from the recent Times’ article is distorted and more closely resembles a polemic to buttress the argument that nothing short of race conscious admissions can solve the challenge of increased diversity than a dispassionate exploration of a difficult and nuanced topic. In fact, the UC’s have figured out how to meet the challenge without engaging in discrimination and with great, not “limited success.”