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A Shame

by  David A. Lehrer

June 25, 2013 | 2:17 pm

In response to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in the Fisher v University of Texas case, this blog offered its view and Community Advocates’ vice president, Joe Hicks, wrote an op/ed that appears in today’s OC Register (see below). Both pieces, we would like to think, were driven by arguments relevant to the decision, the issue of racial preferences and data that is accurately cited.

Attempting to be accurate, especially in dealing with an issue as fraught with emotion and four decades of passion as affirmative action is, seems the least that any commentator should aspire to. That made it all the more troubling to see major media outlets belie their biases and blatantly misrepresent not only the relevant data relating to the affirmative action debate, but some of the key actors as well.

The most egregious misrepresentation that I came across was by The New York Times in a special on-line column entitled How Minorities Have Fared in States With Affirmative Action Bans.

Reading this piece, replete with graphs, one would think that the numbers of black and Hispanic enrollees at the University of California have dropped precipitously since Prop 209 was passed in 1996. Citing only UCLA and Berkeley the chart indicates that blacks at UCLA have dropped from around 10% in 1994 to around 3% in 2011, Hispanics have dropped from around 21% to 17%. At Cal the charts indicate Hispanics have gone from over 22% in 1991 to around 11% in 2011 and blacks from around 7% in 1992 to around 2% in 2011.

The Times chose to ignore the minority enrollees data from across the entire UC system and to focus only on the two most competitive schools. Clearly, the message of minorities being disadvantaged if race preferences are banned would be undercut were the fuller numbers proferred. Minority enrollment in the UCs----California’s premier public institution of higher education---has RISEN since Prop. 209 banned racial preferences. Even excluding Asian American enrollees which have skyrocketed (see below). The authors had to consciously prune the data to come up with the only set that would buttress their point.

But the manipulation of readers by the Times’ authors doesn’t stop with failing to cite the other campuses of the UC and their admission data, it is the nature of the graphs that they use to make their point that is nothing short of insulting. It sets the percentage of enrollees at UCLA and Berkeley against a completely irrelevant number (the percentage of college-aged Blacks and Hispanics in California) and describes the disparity between the two numbers as the “enrollment gap.” The implication being that enrollment numbers at the UC flagship schools are falling short if they don’t approximate gross population data that relates only to the age of the cohort.

I have been debating the issues around affirmative action since the days of the Bakke case in the late 1970s, I have never encountered anyone who even hinted that university admissions be judged against raw population data! It simply doesn’t make sense. The relevant pool could, arguably, be high school graduates or high school graduates who satisfy the UC’s a-g course requirements or students with grades above a particular GPA level. But the cited data is simply irrelevant off point and there to dramatize the authors’ themes not advance the readers’understanding.

Ironically, had the authors of the piece, Ford Fessenden and Josh Keller, simply read the Times from last month they would have seen the obvious inaccuracy of their stats and their argument:

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.

Clearly, the authors had a point they wanted to make and meaningful data that might intrude on that point were unwelcomed.

A second troubling article that surfaced in the post-Fisher media frenzy was in the Huffington Post and mischaracterize the concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. The screaming headline that begs for readers to “click through” was “Clarence Thomas Compares Affirmative Action to Slavery, Segregation in Opinion.” The author, clearly wanting to pique readers’ interest, completely misrepresented Thomas’ assertions.

Whether one agrees with Justice Thomas and his ideology or not, he deserves to have his opinions portrayed accurately—or at a minimum not totally distorted. In his opinion, in which he couldn’t have been clearer, he argued that historically “the worst forms of discrimination in the Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities.” His examples included defenders of slavery saying it was “a positive good” that civilized blacks and segregationists who argued that segregation was good for black students.

There was not a hint in the opinion that he compared affirmative action to those sins. The only arguable language was in his transition from his discussion of slavery and segregation to the defenders of affirmative action, “following in those inauspicious footsteps, the University would have us believe that its discrimination is likewise…” He was unambiguously referring to the rationales offered both for the historic sins of slavery and Jim Crow and the rationale for affirmative action---not the activities themselves. There is simply no honest way to read what Thomas wrote as comparing slavery, Jim Crow and affirmative action. 

Clearly, the Fisher decision has struck some raw nerves, but passions and strong feelings don’t justify spinning data or dishonesty.

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