live-tweeting the harvard affirmative action case

Today, a US District Court ruled that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies passes strict scrutiny. The full ruling is here. I live-tweeted a read through of the decision here, in case you’d like a bit of rambly commentary mixing Gelman-esque critiques of statistical methodology with a smattering of critical race theory. Here are some of my takeaways:

A few summary thoughts:

1. Forking paths, y’all.

2. Deference to elite institutions and their priorities is a thing.

3. Athletics and legacies are a huge part of the calculus at a place like Harvard and the law is cool with that.

4. “Race as a variable” framing is strongly affiliated with current jurisprudence on affirmative action, and statistically enacted in relatively simple statistical models.

5. No discussion of diversity *within* Asian Americans, that is, they are treated as a homogenous race.

6. I don’t understand why Harvard gets a pass on using guidance counselor recs if there’s evidence that they are biased (though I’m not sure that evidence exists, the Court seems to say it wouldn’t matter?!).

7. Nothing in this discourse criticizes the measures of academic merit themselves, even as Harvard and the Court vaguely gesture at the idea that such measures may themselves mean different things for people from different backgrounds.

8. We all still care way too much about who gets into Harvard (myself included, unfortunately). But if you want to understand racial inequality in higher ed, that’s not the first place to look. Instead, look at predatory for-profits. Look at the defunding of public ed. Etc.

There’s no fair way to allocate entrance into highly unequal institutions. The solution can’t be found in tweaking the mechanism determining who gets in to one of the few highly resourced schools. That said, it’s probably still better that Harvard (and Austin and Michigan) won. The alternative would be ending one of the last explicitly race-conscious attempts to undo, albeit in a very small way, the massive racial inequalities that persist in the US.




Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

One thought on “live-tweeting the harvard affirmative action case”

  1. A follow-up mini-thread on what it means to think about racial bias in the context of the personal score:

    “More generally, though, I think the task of trying to separate out “personal characteristics” and “race” fundamentally misunderstands what race is. Of course the personal characteristics reflect race – how could they not given how central race is to the life circumstances and situations of Americans? That’s what’s frustrating to me about the race-as-a-variable logic employed by all parties in this debate. My point is not that the personal characteristics measure is necessarily “biased”, just that it can’t be “free of race” as if we could imagine a race-less individual in the US who still had other personal characteristics. Whether or not the measure is “biased” sort of requires having some sense of what the “correct” outcome is. But there’s no obvious correct outcome, especially when Harvard is choosing among thousands of applicants who are qualified enough to attend and graduate. At some schools, you could ask whether the admissions system was choosing students who couldn’t succeed academically by looking at dropout rates, say, and GPA, though you’d need to be careful because it’s all confounded by class and who has to work extra jobs etc. But at Harvard?”


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