Supporters of affirmative action have been on the defensive since the Justice Department announced it would direct resources to investigate “race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” James Damore, a white male with a degree from Harvard in systems biology, was the perfect target for a scalping. His 10-page memo on Google’s diversity program, described by his antagonists as a “screed,” was actually a cautiously written collection of links to peer-reviewed studies and images of overlapping bell curves. Peppering his article with qualification (“may in part explain,” “many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women”) won him zero charity in the media.
Damore’s critics could not help but lie about the contents of the post. He “posited, among other things, that women were biologically not suited to do tech,” according to Kara Swisher of recode. According to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Damore “argued the biological inferiority of his co-workers.” These commentators, among others, appear incapable of acknowledging that Damore was talking about differences in the averages of distributions, and made sure to eschew imposing group traits upon individuals. Hayes goes further, ascribing normative value to male personality traits where Damore made no such claims.
One issue Damore’s critics have struggled with is whether — being supposedly wrong about the science — he even deserved a substantive response. In Yonatan Zunger’s viral reply, the ex-Googler wrote that “nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect,” but decided not to “spend any length of time” on correcting him. Another ex-Googler, Cate Huston, compared the questions in the memo to debating the existence of gravity or the truth of evolution: “This is the nature of white supremacist misogyny — they take things that there is only evidence in one direction, and try to put it up for debate again.”
Only Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor, bothered engaging with the science in the document. Differences in ability by gender are mostly small, he argued, and the differences that do exist are exaggerated by cultural norms. On the side of Damore, there was some support from four psychology professors at Quillette as well as from Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex. It is not hard to find in the scientific literature a large difference between the sexes in visuospatial ability, existing across all countries sampled — egalitarian or not — and large differences in interest of people versus things that might create some skew in software engineering.
The hysterical, fact-free overreaction, paired with a weak attempt at a scientific pushback using cherry-pickings from a complicated literature, is familiar to anyone who has followed the debate on race and IQ. Mostly, it is an attempt to silence people who notice the reality of group differences at all, regardless of their origin. (Damore himself said that sex differences spring from a mix of both environmental and genetic sources.) But this kind of cultural pressure creates an enormous incentive to generate a weak empirical literature for what might be termed “progressive science.”
Progressive science is the academic wing of blank-slatist ideologues, providing a patina of scholarly respectability for their ideas. The principal objective of their research is to discover the oppressive mechanisms that generate unwelcome group differences and outline policies that might correct them. Favorite “discoveries” include items like stereotype threat or implicit bias while proposed correctives might comprise grit, growth mindset, and sensitivity seminars. This literature typically relies on tiny, underpowered, and poorly designed studies in social psychology. Thus Gaussian noise is weaponized for political purposes. Even when an idea like stereotype threat is killed by careful meta-analysis, it can be resurrected over and over again.
For academics, this sort of research can result in lucrative book deals, fawning interviews on NPR, and viral TED Talks. On the other side, Democratic politicians find it useful to cite research like implicit bias, even when it is scientifically unreliable, to create a sort of disembodied racism that must be psychically cleansed (for a six figure consulting fee). That these results have all fallen in the reproducibility crisis stands in contrast to the success of behavioral genetics, where the high heritability of traits like intelligence has been affirmed. The media is attracted to any hint that contemporary first world social hierarchies are generated by “systemic” forces and repulsed by any science showing they are not.
The more longstanding the historical inequality, the bigger the prize for progressive scientists who seek to identify these systemic forces. So any discussion of group differences and representation necessarily brings us back to the third rail of American politics, and one that Damore’s memo avoided: race. Race-based affirmative action has been a major front in the culture wars, especially since the Bakke decision in the 70s, but defending it from its critics has required increasingly dubious reporting.
For example, Vox’s Victoria M. Massie’s year old article explaining the news that “white women benefit most from affirmative action” recently went viral on Twitter. In support of this surprising claim, she gives three links: one, an article by Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw who repeats the claim but provides zero evidence. Second, a link to an article showing that white women have advanced more rapidly in the business world as managers, though it provides no evidence that this is the result of preferential hiring. Last, The government of New York sets aside 30% of the contracts it awards to businesses owned by women and minorities, and white women won a slight majority of those
Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke, and an actual expert on college admissions preferences, writes that in the context of college admissions, this claim is a long standing myth with no real support. He notes that women are strong majorities at many colleges and don’t need preferential admission practices — if anything, men need them at some schools, usually the less selective ones. (Because of this fact, Carol Anderson at the New York Times declared men to be the “the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action,” also without any form of quantitative evidence.) Massie’s sources seem drawn from other sloppily reported articles like Sally Kohn’s at Time Magazine.
This wasn’t the first time the media played a game of telephone with the facts about affirmative action. In 2013, ProPublica published an analysis of Fisher v. Texas written by Nikole Hannah-Jones (now at the New York Times) that challenged the plaintiff’s standing, writing that University of Michigan rejected 168 black and Hispanic students with better academic qualifications. The problem with this claim is that it’s false: as Blake Neff of The Daily Caller noted, the 168 black and Hispanic students had higher combined Academic Index/Personal Achievement Index scores, and the latter index already includes race as a factor. Nevertheless, Hannah-Jones’s analysis was repeated uncritically by Salon, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, and, yes, Vox.
So what explains the need to lie about what is easily verified? The main reason seems to be cognitive dissonance about group differences in cognitive ability. Intelligence as quantified by IQ is stable, positively correlated with school and job performance and its importance increases as the complexity of work goes up. Some liberals, like Ana Marie Cox, write (preposterously) that “IQ is a metric of such dubiousness that almost no serious educational researcher uses it anymore.” But at other liberal outlets, like Vox, one can both acknowledge that IQ is real and important and that racial groups have different average IQs — gaps that remain large after decades of interventions. What is objected to is that these gaps are genetic in origin (and therefore immutable.)
But once you accept that these large gaps exist, it is reckless to condemn those who point out that the preferentially admitted minorities are on average less intelligent than their white or Asian classmates. The plaintiff in the affirmative action Supreme Court case Fisher v. Texas may or may not have been admitted to the University of Texas in a world without affirmative action, but Voxsplainers must be confused to claim that minority candidates with her qualifications wouldn’t have a better shot, given the extensive empirical literature showing otherwise.
One argument against affirmative action tries to sidestep whether it is fair and delicately approaches differences in cognitive ability. During the oral arguments for Fisher v. Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia scandalized the mainstream media by referencing so-called “mismatch theory” literature, citing e.g. the studies by UCLA professor Richard Sander that show black and Hispanic students end up under-qualified at the schools they attend. The question of whether affirmative action lowers minority graduation rates or pushes them towards easier majors is still in dispute. There was no end to the “debunkings” of mismatch theory after Scalia cited it, and again the progressive scientists served their role well providing cover for the media to chastise Scalia.
But Peter Arcidiacono has a useful summary of the literature showing the empirical balance is in its favor. It’s hard to argue with when in a survey of selective universities fully half of the black students have GPAs in the bottom quintile — entirely consistent with the fact that on average their IQ is on average a little less than one standard deviation lower than the white students’.
While mismatch theory has empirical support, it has failed to persuade anyone on the other side. This shouldn’t be too surprising: affirmative action is more about racial groups feeling included in elite institutions than efficient redistribution. The grievance politics in the affirmative action debate are especially absurd in the way Asians are — or aren’t — discussed. At Bloomberg, the founder of Silicon Valley messaging app Slack boasts that they “make diversity a priority”: Slack hires more women (43%) compared to the SV average (30%). But the number of Hispanic (5.3%) and Black (4.4%) employees is no different from the rest of Silicon Valley. They just hired white women instead of Asians, who are 22.8% of Slack employees versus 41% of Silicon Valley as a whole. Also awkward for liberals to talk about is the number of Asians in New York City’s selective magnet schools: Chris Hayes was outraged by a report that black and Hispanic students only make up 10% of their students, but he failed to notice that more than 50% of them were Asian. The lesson for Asian-Americans is that it’s better to be loud than qualified.
Instead of trying to persuade groups that preferential access to elite institutions will hurt them in the long run, the best argument against racial quotas is likely that they weaken our institutions, especially the public ones. American professors have kept themselves busy studying the effect of “stigma” on minority students and employees, and unsurprisingly there is little direct research on the effect of affirmative action on the quality of institutions. If you look closely enough, though, you’ll find plenty of indirect evidence. Philadelphia has long aimed to diversify its police force in the hopes of connecting better with its community, but Black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to be involved in a police shooting. An investigation by The Washington Times found that the WMATA systematically discriminated against white employees, going as far as promoting a “barely literate” black male over a white engineer who was nearly finished with his PhD. Anyone who has followed the news about the Metro knows the results have been disastrous.
Affirmative action is especially extreme in professional school admissions: at UC Berkeley’s law school, the average black matriculant scores worse than the average white applicant on the LSAT. Overall, black law graduates are four times more likely to fail the bar exam than whites, and lawyers who do narrowly pass the bar — disproportionately from lower scoring racial groups — are more likely to be disciplined or disbarred. Black doctors, who score far lower on the MCATs, are more likely to face reprimands from the California Medical Board and lose their licenses.
When people actually have skin in the game, they tend to accept that it’s better to have the smartest people possible working for them. That’s why Apple shareholders almost universally rejected a plan to recruit more minorities in its corporate leadership. That might also be why the military can still get away with a problematic number of white males in its leadership. In 2015, just one out of 78 Army battalions was led by a black officer. Ethnic homogeneity, rather than diversity, seems to be a strength for teamwork, according to research from Harvard Business School.
It’s tempting to think that as the proportion of the population that is white shrinks, meritocratic admissions will be the only choice. But that is not the international norm. In Malaysia, where Chinese immigrants began as tin miners but quickly came to dominate the business and academic world, the ethnic Malay majority still demands preferential treatment in government hiring and other benefits. People in Brazil’s mixed-race plurality must provide skull and nose width measurements to prove they deserve slots reserved for pardos.
Fourteen years after Justice O’Connor wrote in Grutter that “the Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,” affirmative action is an entrenched, mandatory form of ethnic patronage: both unfair and a heavy drag on the quality of institutions it burdens. If over the next few decades these group differences narrow as little as they have in the last few, an increasingly desperate liberal academia will be forced to be ever more shameless than it has been to satisfy its partners in the media and government. There will be more competition from voices like James Damore, and it will become difficult to silence them without intellectual totalitarianism: less progressive science, more naked expressions of political power. It is up to elites to decide whether America doubles down as it becomes a majority-minority nation.