Use of race in college admissions was outdated, flawed

Rebecca Y. Stallings

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding the use of race in making admissions decisions at colleges and universities.  Not surprisingly, the right-leaning court ruled against race-based admission preferences 6-2 (Harvard) and 6-3 (UNC).

For those who don’t know, the most recent categories used by the U.S. Census are: White, Black or African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. You are allowed to select more than one choice in recognition of mixed races, which is a growing proportion of the U.S. population.

What is the purpose of collecting ‘race’ in the decennial census? According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

“Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”

I think it is past time for important decisions meant to address social and economic disparities to be based on race, which is not actually definable, to begin with. There is no scientific basis for defining race. The differences between races based on DNA sequences is truly minuscule.

Applying current race labels to sub-populations is readily shown to be flawed. For example, in many education studies in U.S. schools, students classified as “Asian” outperform other races in math achievement. However, when more detailed individual student characteristics have been available, it has been shown that this “edge” in achievement is primarily associated with children of immigrants from India, whereas the racial category of “Asian” covers many countries whose economies are widely variable. 

To illustrate, it can be shown that children of Indian immigrants to the U.S. outperform students from smaller Asian nations in mathematics. More than likely, in my experience-based opinion, this is because a disproportionately large number of H1-B visas have been issued to Indians, who subsequently immigrate to the U.S. with their families. These visas are especially prevalent in the technology sector of the economy. The children of these immigrants, due to genetics and home environment, are then more likely than other Asian immigrants to have a better aptitude for mathematics. Thus, all students who claim a heritage of “Asian” are not equally likely to perform well in math. Yet, we continue to lump them into one racial category and make funding and other decisions (including race-based preferences) based on ambiguous classes.

An equally compelling case of ambiguity is that of the category “Black or African-American.” I have known many immigrants from Africa and the African diaspora and their first-generation offspring. I have repeatedly been told by them that they are uncomfortable being grouped together with African-Americans, who they perceive as having very different values and lived experiences. Clearly, they are themselves squeezing African-Americans into one pigeonhole.

As a statistician, I feel that we are distorting reality when we use these race labels. Racial disparities are attributable to multiple socioeconomic variables. Within any census racial category, there is huge variation among individuals.  Who were your primary caregiver(s) growing up? Did you have other adults who gave you positive support (e.g., teachers, coaches, church folk, extended family)? What was the socioeconomic level of your household? What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? Were you exposed to a lot of violence, drug-use, or crime? Did your primary caregiver(s) graduate from high school or get post-secondary education or training? Did they expose you to the arts and music and encourage you to read? Did they highly value education and encourage you academically? These are the factors that lead to disparities in all aspects of our society, not race, per se.

I believe we have clung to the use of race categories because it is a simple classification system, albeit prone to error. It is difficult to conceive of or to construct a valid substitute. For example, regarding race-based admission, Chief Justice Roberts, writing the majority opinion, states: “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” How ludicrous! Now, are we going to rely on an essay that could have been written by a hired professional, a high school counselor, or even AI to decide who deserves a leg up? But, we must try. Social and economic disparities are real and are prolific. It is long past time to level the playing field in my America.

Rebecca Y. Stallings lives in Springfield.

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