Over-noticing minorities.

Note: Instead of updating my blog, I’ve been busy writing my first novel, about which more soon. However, I recently rediscovered on a little-used laptop a cache of abandoned blog posts which I’ll be publishing over the next few days. Some, like this one, refer to news stories that are now a couple years out of date, but I hope you’ll still find them relevant. Here’s the second one…

I can’t remember what chain of links I followed, but the other day I wound up re-reading Ron Unz’s 2012 article The Myth of American Meritocracy in The American Conservative. Unz begins by setting out to prove that Ivy League and other elite universities’ admission policies supposedly designed to reflect America’s diversity have the perverse effect of discriminating against Asian applicants. But in the course of his very long (22,000 words) article he brings in numerous other examples of bias, corruption, and carpetbagging to illustrate his argument that current policies are “selecting future American elites which are not meritocratic nor diverse, neither being drawn from our most able students nor reasonably reflecting the general American population.”

Unz makes the case for replacing the current opaque and arbitrary admissions system with one where the majority of places are assigned by lottery. He calls his scheme “the Outer Ring and the Inner Ring”: the Outer Ring of (say) 80% of each year’s incoming class would be selected randomly from the huge pool of applicants who met basic academic standards, while the smaller Inner Ring would be admitted strictly on academic merit. Unz thinks this system would be fairer, lead to more genuine diversity, and as a bonus, by distributing talented students more evenly across the nation’s campuses, would deal a blow to “the sort of arrogance found among too many of today’s elite college graduates”.

I have no comment on the article, except to say that it seems reasonable and it holds up on a second reading. Incidentally, it’s essential background information for understanding a recent news item from California, where lawmakers in spring 2014 declined to revisit the state constitutional amendment (passed by ballot initiative in 1996) that forbids consideration of race in admissions to state universities. The Democratic majority, heavily dependent on minority voters, would like to bring back racial preferences to increase enrolment of blacks and Latinos, but Asians, another significant Democratic constituency, are worried any attempt to tweak the campus ethnic mix would come chiefly at their children’s expense. (At present Asians are hugely overrepresented in California state universities, relative to their share of the college-age population, while blacks and Hispanics are significantly underrepresented.)

University of California Freshman Enrollees By Race 2010

University of California Freshman Enrollees By Race 2010

So thanks to the lobbying of several Asian state senators, California’s current race-blind admissions policy will continue unchanged, at least for now.

Anyway, though all that is interesting, it’s not what I wanted to write about. I was struck by this sentence, buried down around the 18,000-word mark:

So perhaps many college administrators may have little idea about which ethnic groups are already enrolled above parity and which are below, instead taking their marching orders from an amorphous academic narrative which valorizes “racial diversity.”

To support this conjecture, Unz points to a 2001 Gallup poll that asked Americans to estimate what percentage of the country’s population was black and what percentage Hispanic. The correct answer at that time was 12.3% for blacks and 12.5% for Hispanics. (Since then the black percentage has stayed about the same, while Hispanics have crept up to around 17%.) How accurate were people’s guesses?

[S]lightly less than one in 10 Americans can accurately identify that the population of either blacks or Hispanics in this country falls between 10% and 14%. The typical American estimates the percentages of blacks and Hispanics in this country to be more than twice as high as they actually are.

On average, Americans say that 33% of the U.S. population is black. In fact, a majority of Americans (56%) estimate that the percentage of blacks in this country stands at 30% or higher. As many as 17% of Americans say the percentage of blacks is 50% or greater. Only 7% accurately state that the percentage of blacks falls between 10% and 14% of the entire population.

Americans’ impressions about the percentage of Hispanics in this country are somewhat more accurate … Americans, on average, say that 29% of the U.S. population is Hispanic.

This confusion wasn’t limited to the poor and ill-educated. Even among holders of postgraduate degrees, the mean estimate for the black population was 25%. A couple years ago Razib Khan looked at another survey (from the year 2000) with similar results. This survey included questions about Asians and Jews, whose numbers college graduates exaggerated by a factor of four.

To repeat, these polls were taken over a decade ago, but I can’t see any reason to believe people are better informed today. I was curious to see whether we were equally confused about the number of gays and lesbians in our midst, and it turns out, yup, Gallup asked that question too, back in 2011. The headline says it all: U.S. Adults Estimate That 25% of Americans Are Gay or Lesbian. Twenty-five percent! Of course defining who is or isn’t gay is even harder than drawing borders around the different races, but as Gallup points out, most statisticians put the number of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals together at under 5% of the population. Even in Alfred Kinsey’s famously loosey-goosey data set, gathered by more or less seeking out the kinkiest people he could find then asking them to send round all their kinkiest friends, only 10% of men were willing to admit they’d had a homosexual experience.

At first blush, you might expect this extraordinary evidence of our statistical ignorance to explain a lot about the way people think about race and sexual orientation. But on further reflection, it’s not obvious that it tells us much of anything, besides that people are terrible at counting.

To illustrate: All three of the surveys broke out the results by respondent’s political persuasion, showing that liberals and conservatives were about equally likely to overestimate the numbers of minorities. Conservatives tended to be a shade more realistic in their guesses, but there’s no way to tell if that’s because conservatives are better acquainted with demographics or just that they tend to live in districts where fewer minorities are around, mitigating their tendency to over-notice. Either way, it seems that liberals and conservatives, working from the same faulty assumptions, arrive at opposite policy conclusions – just as better-informed thinkers working from actual demographic data reach opposite conclusions about contentious issues around race and sexual identity.

For instance, these surveys explain why liberals find it so galling that straight white men continue to clog up Congress, corporate boardrooms, university faculties, news anchor desks, and movie screens. Take this article in the Hollywood Reporter a couple years back, which complains that “black actors have been losing ground. In the early 2000s, blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13%.” If you start from the assumption that a third or more of Americans are black, well, then yes, this modest decline does seem outrageous. If you recognize that blacks were in fact slightly overrepresented before the decline, the outrage is harder to sustain.

On the other hand, based on the same survey results I suppose it’s fair to condemn conservatives – most of whom, remember, also believe the inflated minority numbers – as insufficiently concerned over minority underrepresentation.

Liberals and conservatives alike (though in different contexts) evoke the name of Science, or Data, or The Facts, and imagine that their ideological opponents would come around if they were only exposed to them. But I doubt it would make much difference. People are quite adept at finding in the facts confirmation for whatever they already believe.

M.

 

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