A reader in favor of affirmative action, Adrian Gallegos, introduces a new factor to our debate:
Just as a generalization, most minorities don’t have the social capital to take or gain advantages from nepotism as non-minorities do, either consciously or unconsciously. The new word for that is called networking. Networks take time to be established.
A reader who can attest to the power of networking is “an African American who attended a string of elite schools on scholarship from before college through grad school”:
Notwithstanding Justice Roberts’s comments about the benefits of diversity in physics class, the plaintiff herself in Fisher noted that what she was most upset about was the lost alumni connections regarding UT. This is why Justice Scalia’s comments were most disturbing to me, because even if minorities excel academically in “slower” schools, everyone knows the biggest benefits of college are enjoyed after graduation. Good schools will give you a degree and great schools will get you the degree and some connections. Minorities will never be able to affect institutional change within a bubble of such segregation.
Yes, students shouldn’t be pushed to attend schools they can’t graduate from, but I refuse to have others try to make me feel bad for my “lacking” academic performance in comparison to those who benefited from all kinds of tutors, special testing arrangements, medications, etc. And, of course, we can get really deep and talk about the discriminatory history of the GI bill/ benefits, redlining, and other forms of institutional racism that existed well into the mid of the 20th century.
Any discussion about affirmative action is incomplete without a discussion of learning mismatch. The evidence is pretty clear at this point that mismatch is real and producing negative outcomes. Here is a post that discusses it in the context of Fisher.
That post is by Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at UCLA who has spent more than a decade studying the theory of “mismatch”—when the college application of a student who benefitted from affirmative action is significantly weaker than the average student’s at the same college, and thus the AA student would be a better “match” at a less competitive school because he or she is more likely to thrive—both in college and after graduation. Sander argues that a mismatch ends up disadvantaging an AA student even more than if he or she had originally attended a less prestigious college. From his post:
A second form of mismatch—“competition” mismatch—occurs when students abandon particular fields, or college itself, because of the practical and psychological effects of competing with better-prepared students.
At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave the major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.
UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.
There are scholars who dispute Sander and Taylor’s thesis about undergraduate school in general. However, when it comes to the more specific points about STEM subjects and law school, takedown arguments are harder to fashion because of the simple force of the facts.
The Atlanticpublished an excerpt from Sander and Taylor’s book when it came out three years ago. Here’s a portion that runs through some additional data:
Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:
Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.
In response to that excerpt, The Atlantic ran two other pieces. First, Jordan Weissman looked at the mismatch issue “like an economist”:
In 2005, Harvard’s Roland Fryer and Brown University’s Glenn Loury published a paper titled “Affirmative Action and Its Mythologies,” which serves as a wonderful roadmap for considering the costs and benefits of letting schools factor race into their selection criteria. [...] Loury and Fryer acknowledged that if this [mismatch] problem truly turns out to be severe, it should give everyone pause. But they wondered themselves: If some minorities fail, could an affirmative action program still be worth it?
Take, for instance, law schools. Sander’s research has suggested the black law students often underperform their white peers, and drop out at higher rates, because they tend to end at schools they’re ill-prepared to attend. But from society’s perspective, those casualties might be justified by the overall goal of producing more black lawyers. One might retort that making sure black students are in suitable schools will lead more to graduate and take the bar. In the end, it’s a very cold, cost-benefit analysis, but one that should still be made.
The other Atlantic response was from Sarah Garland, who spotlighted “the story of two students at UT-Austin showing how race-based admissions can go right.” One of those students was Jarius Sowells, who automatically got a slot at UT because he fell within the top 10 percent of his high school class:
“I don’t think my high school prepared me very well to begin learning at this institution,” Sowells says. “It was a culture shock. I was around people who didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me.” He signed up for several tough classes his first semester -- microeconomics, business foundations, introduction to psychology, and rhetoric. Within weeks he was failing. “I psychologically broke down,” he says. “I felt I couldn’t handle it.” The following semester he dropped out and returned home.
He didn’t give up completely, however. The following fall he was readmitted on probation. He began to build up his GPA, which is now a 2.7. He dropped his aspirations of majoring in business and switched to African-American studies. His plan is to become a lawyer; he’s counting on getting a high LSAT score to make up for his low grades. [...] And if he struggled at UT-Austin, he says, it’s not because the school should never have let him in; it’s because it should have taken more responsibility for helping him succeed. [...]
Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2003 case supporting affirmative action, believes the evidence on mismatch should be taken more seriously, but not to support an end to affirmative action. “It might mean that you do affirmative action differently, not that you don’t do it at all,” he said. At the same time, Arcidiacono said his research on minority students at Duke suggests that perhaps “colleges need to invest more to make sure they graduate.”
Today, the Facebook page for Jarius Sowells says he attended UT from 2009 to 2015 and stuck with African-American studies and is now living in Rio de Janeiro. I’ll reach out to him for more details. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts on academic mismatch or point me to some important scholarship I haven’t mentioned yet, drop me an email. Update from a reader with a gut reaction:
So if the educators running our most elite institutions can’t educate “mismatched” students, isn’t that a damning indictment of their capabilities? Or do they not think it’s their responsibility to do so? Because at the end of the day, this is about helping slightly challenged but otherwise bright students, and I simply can’t see why any institution would exempt themselves from that mission.
When my son was in seventh grade, one of his friend told him that even if he is the football team captain and the student council president, gets straight A’s and a perfect SAT score, he still won’t be able to get into Harvard—just because he is an Asian. (He was the running back of his school football team at the time and a member of school student council.) He asked me if this is true. It saddened me that I couldn’t simply tell him it is not.
When my daughter was six, she played a game at a Girl Scout meeting to learn that they are all equal despite their different skin colors and looks; race doesn’t matter. She was taught so at home and at school for 17 years and she believed in it. I often heard her say that “race doesn’t matter” when the word was “race” mentioned—until her senior year in high school. I asked her what was so great about her friend to make him be accepted to Harvard. Instead of telling me about his accomplishments, she said that his mother (a Caucasian woman) has some sort of Hispanic lineage, so he is a “Hispanic”.
This race-based admission process slaps everybody on the face. It tells kids what hypocrites we all are. Our school district has zero tolerance for racial discrimination. Our children were told for all their lives that they should judge people by their character, not skin color. But right before our kids leave home for college, it is our country’s most prestigious institutions that FIRST bring them the news: What your parents and teachers have taught you are lies: Race does matter! We judge you by your skin color!
From an old Dish reader:
It is great to see you in action at The Atlantic curating the discussion instead of letting it devolve into a shouting match between trolls. As an younger, single Asian, I was completely in agreement with affirmative action. I could see that a lot of minority kids did not have the resources and means to get the kind of education that typically wealthy, white kids received. So AA as a corrective made a lot of sense to me.
One, I went to grad school with an African American woman who came from a difficult, economically challenged neighborhood, rife with violence and drugs. She was a single mom at 17. But she worked her way to high school diploma, a college degree, and a masters. She had a very difficult time of it. But her grades were exceptional (I don’t mean exceptional for an African-American; I mean exceptional when compared to everyone). She didn’t need a leg up.
But everyone who met her initially condescended to her and assumed she was probably there because she was a minority woman. I don’t think it was fair to her. And what was she supposed to do, walk around with billboard on her head saying “I’m Mensa and I don’t need affirmative action”?
Second, I have since had a child and seen many younger cousins make their way to university and grad school. Affirmative action in action meant seeing very smart and hardworking young kids being declined by Ivys and other very good schools because they were Asian / Indian descent, and God knows we have too many of “them” already. (Meanwhile, their non-Asian minority classmates were accepted to the same schools with lower grades across the board—same high school, same everything, except skin color).
When we talk at the group level, AA is about “blacks getting the same advantage whites always had,” but at an individual level, it means smart Asian kids getting shut out in favor of black or other underrepresented minority kids. Why or how is an Asian kid’s contribution to a largely white class not contributing a diverse viewpoint?
The retort to “do away with athlete and legacy quotas”—at what point do the needs of social justice trump a college’s agency to direct its admissions and its makeup of a student body? It is an erroneous assumption to think all white kids have wealth. That is definitely not true. Neither are all African American kids disadvantaged.
A reasonable person wanting to review or question the efficacy of affirmative action isn’t a racist. Perhaps there are ways to help out kids from all economic backgrounds while not penalizing kids from one or more particular ethnic group. Those policies cannot be debated or discussed in a climate where all questioners are labeled “racists.”
(I found the above screenshot in a Harvard Crimson op-ed by Kirin Gupta, Bernadette N. Lim, and Eva Shang, who criticized “the unsettling ‘Harvard Not Fair’ campaign that seeks to capitalize on the insecurities of rejected applicants based on race.”)
A reader of Asian descent makes a historical connection:
The very notion that Asians should be collectively “limited” is outrageous, a direct parallel to the infamous quotas on Jewish students once imposed at many of these same institutions in the early 20th century. Asians are a historically marginalized group in this country. We lack any operative power in terms of political, social, or institutional influence that would make any collective success subject to just intervention on the level of individuals.
A good source for this Jewish-American history is Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He spoke with Bloomberg about his findings:
Karabel: Harvard, Yale and Princeton, up until the very early 1920s, had an exam-based system of admission. If you passed you were admitted. If you failed you were turned away. If you were in the gray zone, then they might admit you on conditions but basically, if you passed, regardless of your social background, you would be admitted.
That was precisely why the system was judged to be no longer viable because too many of the wrong students, the ``undesirable'' students -- that is, predominantly, Jewish students of East European background -- started to pass the exams.
So an entirely new system of admissions was invented with emphasis on such things as character, leadership, personality, alumni parentage, athletic ability, geographical diversity. They started, for the first time, to do interviews. They introduced photos. A lot of things, which we take for granted today, in fact, were introduced in this period and have endured to the present.
[Robin D.] Schatz: What happened to Jewish admissions as a result?
Karabel: Well, at Harvard, the Jewish proportion of the freshmen class in 1925 had reached 28 percent and shortly thereafter, after a very protracted and bitter struggle, which lasted from 1922 really to 1926, Harvard imposed a 15 percent quota. At Yale, the proportion of Jews had reached toward 14 percent and in 1924, they imposed a 10 percent quota. At Princeton where the proportion of Jews had gotten only to 3.6 percent, they decided that that was excessive and they cut the proportion of Jews to 2 percent in 1924.
These days, colleges that are accused of limiting Asian students will deny the use of quotas, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Bakke, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. One of them is Glenn Harlan Reynolds:
Now the Asian students are suing. In a lawsuit against Harvard [last year], they are claiming that Harvard demands higher qualifications from Asian students than from others, and that it uses “racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body.”
These claims are almost certainly correct. Discrimination against Asian students — and not just by Harvard, but throughout higher education — has been an open secret for years. Asian students, we’re told, face a “bamboo ceiling” as a result.
Back to our reader:
The Atlantic already identified the way forward on affirmative action in Richard Kahlenberg’s article. We simply need to break away from the race-centric identity politics that pervades our political discourse and look at the class context of applicants. That would address the sense of injustice in making decisions explicitly based on race, where people feel they have been denied opportunity as a result of immutable characteristics.
The emphasis must be structural fairness. In this sense, affirmative action at the collegiate level is years too late to provide the equality of opportunity that even opponents of affirmative action would likely affirm (at least publicly) as a desirable goal. That would require more fundamental restructuring of our education system (e.g. equitable school funding, abolishing private education)—intervention that is politically unrealistic, due in part to the complicity, as Adolph Reed has noted, between identity politics and neoliberalism.
So what do you think about the parallels between the Jewish Americans of the early 20th century and the Asian Americans of the early 21st century when it comes to college admissions? Any key differences worth accounting for?Email firstname.lastname@example.org to chime in.
A reader of Asian descent makes a key distinction:
I strongly oppose the notion that Asian Americans should view affirmative action as being a competitive process only between minorities. Specifically, I am writing in to partially disagree with the Asian American reader who wrote:
When we talk at the group level, AA [affirmative action] is about “blacks getting the same advantage whites always had,” but at an individual level, it means smart Asian kids getting shut out in favor of black or other underrepresented minority kids.
I don’t think the statistics warrant his/her notion that Asians are being rejected for only underrepresented minorities. I think the unspoken quotas currently in place at Ivies are for protecting the Caucasian ratio. If you look at Cal-tech and the UC systems that have done away with affirmative action, it would seem to validate this view.
That seems to be true. Take UC-Berkeley: Their diversity statistics show 3 percent Black, 49 percent Asian, and 29 percent White. Harvard, where affirmative action is allowed, had a record high last year of 12 percent Black—a figure school’s website promotes alongside its 21 percent Asian figure … but it doesn’t provide a White percentage (though that figure appears to be roughly 50 percent when Harvard’s four non-White categories are subtracted from the whole). So if more Asians were allowed into Harvard, they would likely cut into that 50 percent, not the 12 percent Black or 13 percent Hispanic—figures that affirmative action was created to maintain.
This reader proposes a solution to prevent direct competition between underrepresented minorities:
The quotas and “negative affirmative action” practiced upon Asians (i.e. they must perform at a higher level than whites to have equal chances of admissions) can be ended without ending the “positive affirmative action” that exists for blacks (and Latinos, Filipinos, Cambodians, etc.). Admissions officers could simply place applicants into either a race-blind or race-conscious pool depending on the representation of that applicant’s race at the university relative to the overall population of the country (easily available from census data).
Overrepresented whites, Chinese, Indians, etc. would be in the race blind pool, while underrepresented blacks, Latinos, Vietnamese, etc. would be in the race-conscious pool (until they too are “overrepresented” in the university, after which point they would be placed in the race-blind pool). In this way, positive affirmative action can continue, while quotas for Asians will be forced to end. Furthermore, Asians will no longer be usable as rhetorical weaponry by the political right, as it could no longer be claimed that Asians are disadvantaged relative to whites by affirmative action.
The drop in black admissions and rise in Asian admissions at schools that ban affirmative action are due to two distinct factors: the ending of negative action for Asians and the ending of positive action for blacks. You can end the former without ending the latter, despite what the political left might believe.
From a “white/Asian” opponent of Asian quotas who poses some “practical questions”:
How should school admissions decide who is Asian? Should it be based purely on self-identification, or should we institute compulsory genetic testing or perhaps an “eyeball” test, just in case some try to pass as white? If an Asian person identifies as white in order to avoid discrimination, would that be morally wrong? In the case of a biracial (Black-Asian) candidate, should they be discriminated against? Or should we put them at the very top of our list?
That email reminds me of the following passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In,” a superb essay on the history of college admissions:
In the nineteen-twenties, when Harvard tried to figure out how many Jews they had on campus, the admissions office scoured student records and assigned each suspected Jew the designation j1 (for someone who was “conclusively Jewish”), j2 (where the “preponderance of evidence” pointed to Jewishness), or j3 (where Jewishness was a “possibility”).
An Asian American critic of AA looks ahead to a lawsuit:
Now that the model minority myth is of no political use to the liberal elites who actually want to promote affirmative action, Asian American “over representation” is now considered a problem rather than a promise. We are now an invasive species that only affirmative action can help manage.
(Ironically, it is a discriminatory immigration policy that fuels the overrepresentation: Asians with highly developed skills or a promise to invest capital to hire U.S. citizens are pushed to the front of the line. We do well because it takes doing well just for us to get here.)
So it’s no wonder that Edward Blum, of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has seemingly taken Asian American issues to heart and has filed lawsuits on our behalf to halt or defeat the race-tinkering of the liberal elite. [CB note: Blum also encouraged Abigail Fisher to sue the University of Texas, resulting in the current Fisher case before the Court, and he’s also behind the current Evenwel v. Abbott, which, according to Garrett Epps in a recent piece for us, “would limit representation to eligible voters—favoring wealthier, whiter, and more conservative citizens.”] Asian American students are understandably apprehensive about his intentions, even if he is advocating for their immediate interests.
“It took a Jewish white guy to start this case,” said James Chen, who runs a San Francisco-based company called Asian Advantage College Consulting. The firm advises students to underplay their ancestry as one strategy for maximizing their chances of getting into a top school. Among some recent immigrants he has worked with, Chen said, “there is a tendency to keep their head down.” [...]
Because Harvard reveals few details about its admissions process, Blum’s lawsuit relies mostly on data provided by outsiders. One example is a 2009 report co-written by Princeton University sociology professor Thomas Espenshade. The study contends that Asian Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, all other variables being equal, to get into elite schools. Blum also cited research by professors he used in the Fisher case. In its court filing, Harvard denied that it discriminates and said it lacked information about the studies to specifically respond to them.
Some readers have previously suggested that “Asian Americans should [not] view affirmative action as being a competitive process only between minorities” and that “Admissions officers could simply place applicants into either a race-blind or race-conscious pool depending on the representation of that applicant’s race at the university relative to the overall population of the country (easily available from census data).”
This is a wonderful idea, but it is nearly impossible given the legal realities of affirmative action in America. A university's ability to employ affirmative action at all is heavily predicated on its ability to justify how such policies are consistent with furthering its educational mission. Beyond general hand-waving about the value of diversity, this requires universities to espouse some metric for determining when they have “enough” diversity. After all, without such a metric, who's to say they aren’t already diverse enough? Not the university, certainly; this was the central holding of Fisher I. And not only must they have such a metric, it must also be consistent and non-arbitrary, lest they open themselves up to attack from the likes of Fisher.
Most universities solve this problem by loosely employing a “proportion of the population” approach, wherein representation at the university should model representation in the population at large, which works very well for underrepresented minorities. But, under such a framework, overrepresented minorities necessarily get the short end of the proverbial stick, because their over-representation means that some other group must be underrepresented and is therefore a problem.
This is not the end of the story, though. Universities could adopt a different metric of representation. If they did so, overrepresented minorities could be fine. But to adopt a different metric would mean adopting that metric across the board: applying it only to some groups but not others would be deeply constitutionally suspicious. And this, in turn, could potentially harm underrepresented minorities, who just lost a very defensible argument for increased representation.
And operating in orbit around all of this is the ever-present threat of litigious anti-affirmative action groups who relish any opportunity to haul universities into court. This puts universities between a rock and a hard place, because they have to find some consistent, legally defensible way to argue that under-representation is both harmful (in the case of blacks, etc...) AND beneficial (in the case of whites) to their educational mission. I won’t go so far as to say it’s an intractable problem, but it’s certainly hard to find a happy ending for both over- and under-represented minorities.
The path of least resistance appears to be the proportion of the population approach, with the ensuing harm to over-represented minorities, at least until such time as it is ruled unconstitutional.
I am an under-represented minority with a mixed background who never checked the box during college admissions. In a state that only measures race composition afterwards and does not consider it in admission, that was a formality. But regardless, I don’t want preference or discrimination.
What I see at work, where I report on student demographics, is that fewer and fewer students are checking boxes. Those opting out first are likely students who believe it would disadvantage them, followed by students of mixed race who don’t agree with the terminology of “other”/“multi”/“mixed.”
My children and I have names that belie our complex mixed background (hyphens are too troublesome). Will admissions officers then look at the last names and try to determine race? Will they pore over essays that conveniently mention neither mama’s kimchi nor grandma’s gumbo, desperate for clues?
Can this be an “out” for Asian students? My children may be classified as Asian, since their father is from Western Asia. I would never ask them to choose one heritage over another. But what will they do?
Last month, as part of our long discussion in Notes on affirmative action and its renewed attention under Fisher v. University of Texas, we addressed the mismatch theory, in which racial preferences in college admissions could do more harm than good if they place unprepared students in the kind of hyper-competitive “prestigious” schools that cause many students to abandon certain academic tracks like STEM or law, or even drop out of college altogether, when those students would have otherwise thrived in those fields after graduating from slightly less competitive schools. (Conor also tackled the mismatch debate.) A reader wonders:
I’m curious if anyone has studied “mismatch” and its effects on legacy admissions at Ivy League colleges. For example, could George W. Bush have become President of the United States on the connections he would have established drinking his way through Texas Tech rather than Yale? Would his behavior and performance while in college have been tolerated had he been admitted to Texas Tech on his own merit rather than to Yale as the son and grandson of elites?
To answer to the reader’s leading question, yes; Gail Heriot, a law professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, addressed the legacy factor in a long report on mismatch theory published by the Heritage Foundation in August. (Heriot also co-authored the amicus brief that Justice Scalia cited in his controversial comments over Fisher last month.) From the Heritage report:
[Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo and Duke sociologist Ken Spenner] helped to dispel the common belief that beneficiaries of affirmative action catch up after their freshman years with their better-credentialed fellow students. What happens instead is that many transfer to majors where the academic competition is less intense and where students are graded on a more lenient curve. Their GPAs increase, but their standing relative to other students taking the same courses does not.
Again, the authors show that this effect is by no means confined to beneficiaries of affirmative action. White children and grandchildren of alumni who receive legacy preferences have the same experience, earning lower grades than white non-legacies at the end of their first year. While the gap narrows over time, it is only because legacy students also shift away from the natural sciences, engineering, and economics and toward the humanities and social sciences.
This helped the authors to respond to the argument that underrepresented minority students abandon science and engineering because they have no role models there or because they are somehow made to feel unwelcome. It is exceedingly unlikely that anti-legacy bias, lack of legacy role models on the faculty, or any other argument commonly advanced to explain racial disparities in science explains the legacies’ collective drift toward softer majors. If it is the wrong explanation for legacies, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the wrong explanation for underrepresented minorities as well.
Another reader, Jochem Riesthuis, draws a much different conclusion than Heriot’s:
In response to the argument on mismatch, it seems curious to me that the idea of white (or more generally, majority ethnic) mismatch is not part of Sander’s research. After all, many white students get into prestigious and selective universities because of legacy policies, or athletic scholarships, or because of their essay writing skills, great recommendation letters or extracurricular activities, in spite of lower SAT or LSAT scores. How do these students fare?
One would imagine that they too are less likely to prosper in the demanding circumstances of the intellectually challenging university. I have no data on this, but anecdotally the evidence seems to be on the other side: George W. Bush, for instance, did well enough at Yale, without being a high flyer academically. If that pattern holds for most white legacy students with lower-than-average test scores at selective universities [CB note: That doesn’t seem to be case, according to Heriot], we could argue that it is not the academic challenge but the cultural challenge that trips up minority students.
We could then argue that “White students who have lower academic scores get by on their social skills.” If this is the case, that severely undermines the argument for Sander’s case. After all, if there are less than 10 percent African American students on a campus, their social capital is going to diminish accordingly. There will be less people who look like them, or with whom they share a cultural background. In a hostile racial environment—on the assumption that the U.S. is a hostile racial environment—this becomes detrimental to academic performance.
In other words, the presence of other African American students—even if they do not perform well academically—helps the gifted African American student do better. In order to help more minority students succeed at law school, the law school needs to help them acquire the social capital needed to become a lawyer—for instance, by providing first-year internships at black law firms. As your reader argues, it is the job of the elite universities to help bright but socially challenged students.
Claude Steel at Stanford has done research suggesting that the lack of social capital and the “stereotype threat”—where students fear confirming the stereotype associated with their minority—may indeed harm their scores. See him explain his work here. For a few critiques of Sander’s argument that runs according these lines, see this essay in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Educationthis review of Sander’s book in the Texas Law Review.
Conversely, if we see a failure in white legacy students to become lawyers similar to what Sander saw in minority students, this would be an argument to stop all selection other than on SAT and LSAT scores: no more recommendations, no more lists of extra-curricular activities, no more essay writing, and certainly no more legacy or scholarships based on anything other than test scores. The societal costs of such a system might be too heavy to bear. What would be the point of donating to a university, or supporting it politically, financially or intellectually, if it gave no benefits to you and yours? It’s strange to single out affirmative action students as the sole beneficiaries of an admissions system that considers more than only test scores.
Your thoughts? Drop me an email and I’ll try to incorporate them into the ongoing thread on affirmative action. Update from our reader Jochem:
I would add a question in response to Heriot’s argument:
Is the lower success rate for legacy students also true of law schools? It would seem to me that the study of law is closer to the humanities and social sciences than to STEM subjects, and it is in law schools that we see many legacy students too.
If it is also true of law schools, I would suggest that even at the cost of having fewer African American lawyers overall, there is societal gain in having affirmative action at prestigious law schools to provide a buffer for the exceptional African American law students. Affirmative action thus leads to more Ivy-league educated African American lawyers—however few in number—who would be eligible to sit on the Supreme Court and lower appellate courts. Gone are the days when people with degrees from other universities get on the bench. If we don’t want to return to an all-white Supreme Court, we therefore need affirmative action.
The same would hold for other fields, since for instance the NIH overwhelmingly offers fellowships and research grants to scholars from prestigious universities. If these do not include African Americans and other minorities, their specific health issues are likely to get researched less, leading to higher health costs for all of us, which is already a problem.
That’s the general question addressed by our latest round of reader emails on the subject, who are taking a step back from the more specific areas we’ve tackled so far, such as mismatch theory, the discrimination against high-achieving Asian-Americans, and the stigma felt by some recipients or perceived recipients of affirmative action. This reader criticizes the policy:
Any time one chooses on the basis of politics rather than qualifications, you are reducing efficiency as well as angering the losers. If we reward people based on ability, it both motivates ability and reduces the value of being a victim. So long as we allow people to declare themselves victim and benefit from it, we will face an increasingly fragmented society as people try to place themselves in a politically benefited group to gain advantages.
This reader has a more measured take:
I worked at UCLA in 1996 when Californians were debating, and ultimately passed, Proposition 209. The law banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity from being considered in public employment, contracting, or education. It has since been upheld after numerous court challenges.
Prop 209 debates dominated campus at the time. I will never forget being at a university “town hall” where the director of the affirmative action program was attempting to explain what AA was and why it should remain.
I raised my hand and asked, “How does the federal government measure compliance with affirmative action?” After having just ended a long explanation of how it was not a “quota system,” he dodged. “Well, I’ll tell you what, when an institution is not in compliance, they sure get into a heck of a lot of trouble, as we’ve recently seen” (referring to a recent citation of UC San Diego for non-compliance).
His dodge really explained the unspoken reality of AA: It is about getting minorities placed in employment and education by hook or crook. It is not, as it theoretically goes, only about choosing the minority when up against an equally-qualified white person.
However well-intentioned and even perhaps necessary, it is in fact about counting by race, something which should give us pause even if we see its numerous benefits.
This reader, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is:
To be honest, I’ve never particularly understood why affirmative action is so controversial. I think there are meaningful arguments about whether it should be based on race or socio-economic class, especially if many of the benefits are accruing to middle and upper-class African Americans, but that’s a matter of implementation more than existence.
First off, to deny that African Americans have been systematically and uniquely disadvantaged throughout history is silly. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t until 1964, and society doesn’t suddenly transform the minute a law is enacted. But, even if you go back further, black families were systematically split up and slaves were purposefully denied an education during slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the books with a rightful claim to “Great American Novel” status, centers on Jim running away from his “Master” because she broke her promise not to split up his family. He runs away and joins Huck to escape to the North with the primary goal of making enough money to buy back his family (Django Unchained is a more contemporary story with the same theme).
In addition, central to most slave narratives is some trickery or happenstance that allowed them unlikely access to education. Frederick Douglass bribed poor neighborhood white kids with bread in exchange for lessons on reading, which was highly frowned upon. He wrote, “I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.”
But, honestly, even if that weren’t the case, I’m not certain that I see much difference between affirmative action and any other need-based scholarship, many of which are awarded by race, gender, or socio-economic status. Sure, if I found out I was the theoretical “person whose spot was given to someone less qualified based on affirmative action,” I might be personally miffed, but the odds of that are highly unlikely.
This reader wants a more nuanced approach when implementing AA:
Rather than argue about whether it’s permissible or useful to use race in admission criteria, it would be a good idea to go directly to indicators of social disadvantage. Students who do well in challenging situations deserve credit for that. Rather than “race” (whatever that is), look directly at household income, parents’ educational level, various indicators of school quality, crime rates for the student’s home neighborhood.
The result would, of course, include a lot more students of color, and also a lot more disadvantaged white students. The biggest problem is that it would reduce the advantage of privileged students. The well-off would howl. A student who attended a good school, wasn’t (involuntarily) hungry, got tutoring and other help as needed, and did well in school wouldn’t get the benefit of pretending that all students had those advantages.
Using direct measures of social disadvantage is so obvious that it's hard to believe admissions officials haven’t thought of it. It’s also hard to believe that the reason for not even trying it is the expected opposition of the privileged. It’s easier to argue about race than to confront entrenched privilege.
One more reader for now:
Everyone watching these issues from the sidelines gets up in arms and takes one side or the other. As a result, we naturally frame the issue as underprivileged groups against colleges when we should actually frame it as one unified team against entrenched, systemic disadvantage.
All of those discussing here are basically looking for the same thing: We want everyone to get a fair shot. So how do we reduce the rate of mismatch? Better high schools for the disadvantaged? Perhaps, but we’ve struggled with issue since well before Brown vs Board of Education. Free tutoring during the year? Maybe, but considering the isolating effects of effectively singling out students for remedial education combined with the likely burden of working to pay their way through college, I doubt the merits of this option.
Why not take advantage of secondary educational systems already in place around the country? Nearly every major university has community colleges in close vicinity. Why not work to allocate money to these oft-ignored and neglected environments and create “equality pipelines” that could bring intelligent and hardworking individuals up to speed? It’s a ready-made vehicle for advancement that just needs to be tweaked to run effectively.
The reality of the situation is that in order to reduce mismatch, a significant time commitment is needed. Creating a place designed specifically for this purpose is an active step against entrenched advantage while accepting the realities required in order to receive a high-level education. On average, you can’t bring everyone up to speed without a significant time and energy commitment. Acknowledging this undeniable reality is the first step to developing realistic solutions to universal problems regarding equality, disadvantage, and academic accomplishment. Ignoring the facts of obtaining a quality education does everyone a disservice.
P.S. The Atlantic is my favorite venue for online intellectual thought. I appreciate the forum you guys provide for discussion. If you guys post this can you make sure my name is not attached? I work in an environment where I need to remain apolitical.
Yep, all emails are posted anonymously in Notes unless a reader gives us permission otherwise. And thanks to everyone taking the time and effort to write in over this controversial, ongoing issue. Still more of your emails to come. Update with another one right now, from a long-time reader:
Here are the assumptions that I see in the emails you posted that shouldn't go without examination:
1) That the objective of a university’s admissions process is to reward 18 year olds who have worked hard and deserve a spot on their campus, rather than to assemble a student body that fits its own needs, or, in the case of public institutions, fulfill its obligation to produce benefits (economic or societal) for the taxpayers of the state that supports it.
2) That the selectivity of an institution relates to the difficulty of its classes. (Community college courses are not primarily remedial versions of “real” college. They’re often the same material provided without the big ticket opportunities or the whole-life support system of a prestigious residential college and classmates who are all already high achievers. Students who do well enough to transfer probably would have done well if they had been admitted in the first place.)
I’m a female black professional who, by any objective measure, earned spots in honors programs and a well-regarded university for graduate school. While I would not say I have been “shamed” by affirmative action, as one reader suggests, the practice has at various points intensified my experience of impostor syndrome.
For instance, I recall having secured an internship with a prestigious institution and sneaking a peek at the resumes of others who had applied. I was surprised by the amount of relief I felt in seeing that my resume was, in fact, stronger than the others. The institution also had an internship program reserved for minorities and I had begun to be bothered by the possibility that perhaps I couldn’t with confidence say that I was just as capable as others who had been hired.
Aside from any fleeting doubts I might have about my own accomplishments, I do tend to think that the focus on preserving affirmative action in college admissions distracts from the more fundamental problem, which is that the majority of failing public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. are composed of minority (black and Hispanic) students.
I grew up in a school district that was very weak, and so my mother insisted that I attend the local parochial school. The school district continued to decline until many years later it was officially stripped of its accreditation. (In fact, it was the subject of This American Life’s Ep. 562: “The Problem We All Live With” [embedded above]).
I have sometimes wondered what my own prospects would have been had my parents not been able to afford even the modest tuition we paid, and had I not commuted to a high school that boasts of a 100 percent college admissions rate, instead of going to a school in the worst district in the state. Even if I would have made it through anyway, I know that I would have been significantly less prepared to compete for college admission and to do well once admitted.
So to a large extent, we as a society seem to be attempting to make up for our failure to provide minorities a better education at the primary and secondary school levels with affirmative action in college admissions, leading to many of the problems mismatch theory addresses.
Another reader hits on similar themes:
The inequities begin in elementary school (or before), and I am not referring to home training. The dividing line today is no longer black or white; the true dividing line is between the haves and the have nots. The existence of a technological divide is not merely a convenient catch phrase; it is real. The quality of work produced by a student with limited access to research materials and to the internet compared to a student who has received the advantage of top line equipment and 24/7 online access may be in some cases equivalent, but you can be sure that the student with limited access worked a lot harder to attain their standing.
The auxiliary services in schools in economically depressed areas and high density minority areas also suffer in comparison, in that an unfortunately large percentage of guidance counselors are more concerned with merely graduating students to protect their jobs rather than encouraging them to pursue higher education, and for those few who do, they are pushed to attend those schools which have lower academic standards. Why? Because they are aware that their students, who may have been straight-A students, have in many cases never been offered the required courses they need to survive in a top-line school.
That is the inequity that needs to be addressed: because if that student, by some miracle, gets into a top line school, he or she has to learn not only their current subjects but also those topics which they never received in school. Imagine having to learn two or three years extra work in addition to your freshman year coursework. This is why so many students drop out.
I am not talking about conditions of my generation; I am talking about today’s generation. Yesterday, I heard a young man (11th grader) complaining about the math courses at his school: he said that he is still receiving that same level of math that he had in 8th grade. “It never changes.” We are still not being properly equipped to compete on a level playing field.
Back in December, when the Supreme Court held oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, we started a robust reader debate on affirmative action in Notes. (You can peruse it from the beginning here.) In a 4-3 decision this morning, the court upheld UT-Austin’s program for increasing student diversity partly based on race. The ruling is a “substantial defeat” for opponents of affirmative action, says Garrett Epps. On the deciding swing vote:
For the first time in his judicial career, Kennedy gave his approval to a race-based affirmative-action program. And he did so in an opinion that clearly reaffirmed the constitutional rationale for such programs first enunciated by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the 1978 case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke and reaffirmed by the court majority in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger.
Yet: “Kennedy was careful to clothe his opinion in narrow language that appeared to leave larger questions open. Thus, a nine-justice court (if such a unicorn is ever found in the wild) might one day reconsider the issue.” That would be just fine with this reader:
We still need affirmative action right now. BUT if we ever want to gain true equality, benefits based on race will have to go, just the same as racial degradation needs to go. Nobody can deny that someday soon affirmative action will be gone.
When would that be—by what metric? If you’re a backer of affirmative action and want to tackle that question, please drop us a note. This reader suspects the policy will never be phased out:
AA used to be justified as a tool to achieve equality, or to redress past wrongs. Now the justification has shifted: It is now a tool used to make sure that classes are diverse, regardless of whether all the applicants are on a level playing field. This ruling ensures that affirmative action is now a permanent fixture of American colleges.
But this next reader points to where AA is not a fixture at all:
I’m so glad I live in a state like California where we understand that race should not matter in college admissions [due to Proposition 209, approved by votes in 1996]. And with a colorblind system, we have a majority non-white state college system. The California experience pretty much shows that affirmative action is unnecessary in getting non-white minorities into college.
Here’s a statistical chronology of that “majority non-white state college system”:
In California, the state’s flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year.
Update from another reader in California:
On the surface, Kennedy’s opinion seems to make sense, as each school can best decide the makeup of the institution and can include race as a factor to address diversity at their particular school. But this decision also brings up some troubling questions. What about diversity of religion? Or age? Females have surpassed males in most undergrad programs. [From that 2014 US News piece: “Women now making up about 57 percent of all college students, an exponential gain compared to around 40 percent in the 1970s, according to the NCES.”] Should being a man be of benefit to the admissions process? Political bent? Sexual orientation?
I don’t know that there’s a slippery slope, but it seems to me that there certainly could be.
Last week, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision upholding the use of racial preferences at UT-Austin, I posed a question to readers who back affirmative action: When, under what standards or metric, should the policy be phased out in the future, if ever?
For her part, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her pro-AA opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), famously stated that “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.” See below for a 2006 policy paper that estimated whether that 25-year standard is attainable.
I think when affirmative action should end, we’ll all know it should end.
Only a generation ago for many of us, the idea of someone being a doctor or lawyer wasn’t realistic; it was an almost completely alien idea for our parents and an almost a complete uncertainty for our grandparents. Diversity is codeword now for affirmative action, but it’s more than that. It’s often mocked, but it’s an ideal that a truly free country, the people at the top will match the people in society. If that discrepancy isn’t fixed, it’s a clear stain on the idea that all men are created equal. [CB: That idea was stained from the beginning, of course, in a very different way.] How can we as a people proclaim that America is free land of equal opportunity if people of darker skin are continually worse economically and socially?
Update from a reader, who snarks: “I agree that Korean college students should atone for the sins of the South,” suggesting that Asian American students are disadvantaged by AA policies. (For more on that aspect of the debate, see Alia’s newest piece, “Asian Americans and the Future of Affirmative Action.”)
Another reader points to the existence of private racial jokes as the reason to continue AA in perpetuity:
Perhaps if all Southern land owners had their property confiscated and redistributed to slaves after the Civil War, then we would not have had segregation and the generational problems of racism we do today. However, that’s not what happened, and affirmative action should continue until, for instance, folks like Meg Whitman’s racist son calling people ni**ers in public is no longer a common occurrence. [CB: This claim apparently stems from anonymous rumors posted by Gawker in 2009.] As long as the public face of white people is to smile while cracking racist jokes in private, there should be affirmative action.
Update from a reader on that excerpt: “No. You are demanding perfection from all people at all times in all places.” This next reader makes “a key distinction”:
Affirmative action is NOT about equality but rather about equity. Equality is about treating everyone the same, whereas equity is about meeting folks where they are at.
And face it: Today in America your race and class (and gender) intersect in troublesome ways that dictate your ability to earn in a lifetime and what type of education you will achieve. Off the top of my head, HBCUs are 70 percent women. [CB: Actually the best number I could find was 63 percent, in 2013, up from 53 percent in 1976.] Black men just aren’t in higher education. There are a lot of social issues preventing this, but there are strongly inequitable patterns that persist among racial and ethnic groups today. We are a long way off from parity.
I think the rush to judgement on affirmative action is that the piece of the pie feels a teensy bit smaller for white, cis-men. And frankly, without diversity and equity, we are a long way off from excellence in a civil society that holds itself to be the best in the world. Democracy and its engagement thereof cannot exist to its fullest extent without diversity and equity.
So I guess affirmative action should end when there is equity, but I also don’t believe our system allows us to be equitable. But that’s another post for another day.
Update from a pro-AA reader who bristles at the image seen above:
That image illustrates the worst possible misunderstanding of AA—that it’s about giving unqualified people a leg up into institutions they are not qualified for. AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.
I’m for AA. I just think that it should be tweaked and updated to some degree. Exactly how I don’t know, but I’d like it to lean more towards seeing the socio-economic identities of those we’re trying to help, rather than just race/gender—which, due to the successes of AA, has become a bit of an anachronism.
I also think we need to be honest about what the controversy is about: It sacrifices individuals of a certain Group to benefit other individuals of another Group, because we are concerned about larger lack of representation of the latter Group. But it does choose winners and losers based on race and sex. It may be for high-minded purposes, but it does just that.
Update from a reader who takes issue with that one:
“AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.” That is just empirically not true. At least in college admissions, the preferences given are enormous—so large that colleges fight to the last to avoid disclosing just how large they are. According to the LA Times, citing a Princeton Study, “African Americans received a ‘bonus’ of 230 [SAT] points… Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points… Asian Americans, [college prep entrepreneur Ann Lee] says, are penalized by 50 points.”
230 SAT points on the 1600 point scale is a staggering bonus—not just a finger on the scale, but an anvil. To claim two candidates whose SAT scores differ by 230 or 185 points are equally qualified is extraordinarily disingenuous.
From Dave, a reader in Texas:
To put it simplistically, of course affirmative action should end, but not until the conditions that cause it to be necessary are gone. In other words, not for a long damned time.
Update from a reader who replies to Dave:
Unfortunately, those “conditions” keep getting redefined. Apparently, everyone is a racist now, even if we don’t know it.
This next reader would probably agree with that sentiment, and overall he thinks AA has become too institutionalized and incentivized to ever go away:
I suspect that affirmative action—at least the philosophy behind it—is so firmly embedded in our society that we’ll never be rid of it. Apparently we’re all ok with the idea of a permanent subclass within society that simply can’t succeed on their own without assistance. Now there is an entire industry based on affirmative action including specialists in AA law, AA HR compliance, support groups, housing specialists, finance, and even politicians. When you make your living working with affirmative action, the entire country looks like a klan rally.
If you want to jump into this debate, please email hello@.
We conclude that under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future. The magnitude of the underrepresentation is likely to shrink—in our most optimistic simulation, somewhat over half of the gap that would be opened by the elimination of race preferences will be closed by the projected improvement in black achievement.
Still, it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action. If the Supreme Court follows through with O’Connor’s stated intention to ban affirmative action in 25 years, and if colleges do not adjust in other ways (such as reducing the importance of numerical qualifications to admissions), we project substantial declines in the representation of African Americans among admitted students at selective institutions.
A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change.
Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.
Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.
In ways both large and small, American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people.
If you were to look under the roofs of American homes at random, it wouldn’t take long to find someone who lives alone. By the Census Bureau’s latest count, there are about 36 million solo dwellers, and together they make up 28 percent of U.S. households.
Even though this percentage has been climbing steadily for decades, these people are still living in a society that is tilted against them. In the domains of work, housing, shopping, and health care, much of American life is a little—and in some cases, a lot—easier if you have a partner or live with family members or housemates. The number of people who are inconvenienced by that fact grows every year.
Those who live alone, to be clear, are not lonely and miserable. Research indicates that, young or old, single people are more social than their partnered peers. Bella DePaulo, the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, reeled off to me some of the pleasures of having your own space: “the privacy, the freedom to arrange your life and your space just the way you want it—you get to decide when to sleep, when to get up, what you eat, when you eat, what you watch on Netflix, how you set the thermostat.”
You can make your quest for meaning manageable by breaking it down into three bite-size dimensions.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Want to live in a directed, resolute way? To always know why you’re doing what you’re doing? There’s a simple way to make your dreams come true: Go find the meaning of life!
People who believe that they know their life’s meaning enjoy greater well-being than those who don’t. One 2019 study found that agreeing with the statement “I have a philosophy of life that helps me understand who I am” was associated with fewer symptoms of depression and higher positive affect.
Lucky you if you were born already knowing what the meaning of your life is. For the rest of us, the search can be difficult and frustrating. Philosophy is often unhelpful, offering abstract ideas such as Aristotle’s human function or Kant’s “highest good” that are hard to comprehend, let alone put into action.
You might have fewer antibodies now. But they’re better than the ones you started with.
In early March, Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, celebrated a milestone: hitting the point of full vaccination, two weeks after getting his second Pfizer shot. Since then, he’s been watching the number of coronavirus antibodies in his blood slowly but surely decline.
The drop hasn’t been precipitous, but it’s definitely happening—regular checkups have shown his antibody levels, also known as titers, ticking down, down, down, from spring through summer, now into fall. The slump fits the narrative that countless reports have been sounding the alarm on for a while now: In the months after vaccination, our antibodies peace out, a trend that’s often been described as a “waning” of immunity, and evidence that we’re all in dire need of boosters to shore our defenses back up.
The fate of the Democrats’ push for voting-rights legislation lies once again in the hands of one senator from West Virginia.
The Democratic Party’s push to protect future American elections from GOP suppression and subversion is once again largely in the hands of the moderate senator from West Virginia. For the second time this year, Republicans today unanimously blocked voting-rights legislation from coming up for debate in the Senate. Democrats have the ability to pass the legislation on their own, but only if Manchin—among others—will allow them to do so.
In the imagination of voting-rights advocates, today’s Senate vote should have occurred with thousands of demonstrators marching outside the Capitol, pressuring Republicans to step up and help preserve American democracy. President Joe Biden would be meeting with Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema in the Oval Office, verbally if not physically twisting their arms to persuade them to back a carve-out to the Senate’s filibuster to circumvent GOP obstruction. “The vote on whether we will have a republic is at 2:15 today,” tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics.
Different chemically than it was a decade ago, the drug is creating a wave of severe mental illness and worsening America’s homelessness problem.
In the fall of 2006, law enforcement on the southwest border of the United States seized some crystal methamphetamine. In due course, a five-gram sample of that seizure landed on the desk of a 31-year-old chemist named Joe Bozenko, at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab outside Washington, D.C.
Organic chemistry can be endlessly manipulated, with compounds that, like Lego bricks, can be used to build almost anything. The field seems to breed folks whose every waking minute is spent puzzling over chemical reactions. Bozenko, a garrulous man with a wide smile, worked in the DEA lab during the day and taught chemistry at a local university in the evenings. “Chemist by day, chemist by night,” his Twitter bio once read.
A new film adaptation of the best seller has a colossal budget and an all-star cast—but its emotional depth is what sets it apart.
Paul Atreides, the handsome young protagonist of Dune, is one of science fiction’s original chosen ones. His heroic journey from plucky teenager to feared warrior has been imitated time and time again—think of Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. But the director Denis Villeneuve’s film is the first adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel to properly portray the grim tragedy of Paul’s arc; the movie is epic in scope, but it understands the quieter human underpinnings of the original work.
At the heart of Herbert’s Dune series, a multi-book tale of space empires, sandworms, religious fervor, and political gamesmanship spanning centuries, was a simple observation: Great power comes with terrible burden. Dune follows the Atreides family after Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) is given control of Arrakis, a harsh planet that is mined for a magical substance called spice, crucial to space travel. The Duke knows the gift is a poisoned chalice, an opportunity to fail that’s been set up by an evil baron—but still he accepts, hoping to defeat the odds stacked against him. His wife, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is an aristocratic space witch who works to mold the future behind the scenes. And their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), might be the messiah, a baby she willed into existence against her training. He is marked from birth with the potential to change the universe’s destiny. But being at the center of a cosmic chess match is as terrifying as it is exhilarating.
Shane Campbell-Staton never planned on traveling to Mozambique in search of tuskless elephants, but weird things can happen when you stay up ’til 3 a.m. binge-watching YouTube videos. (“Sometimes, a brother can’t get to sleep, Ed,” he told me.)
Battling insomnia, Campbell-Staton watched a video about Gorongosa National Park. The park was once Edenic, but during Mozambique’s civil war, from 1977 to 1992, much of its wildlife was exterminated. Government troops and resistance fighters slaughtered 90 percent of Gorongosa’s elephants, selling their ivory to buy arms and supplies. Naturally tuskless females, which are normally rare, were more likely to survive the culls; after the war, their unusual trait was noticeably common.
In three distinct and different places, a similar sense of loss—of liberal values, of hope—is overwhelming.
From my home in Beirut, I think of Hong Kong all the time. Even though I’ve never been and have no real ties to it, I feel as though I have a stake in its future. I stare at news headlines that read, “Hong Kong Families, Fearing a Reign of Terror, Prepare to Flee the City,” and feel a strange, visceral sense of familiarity. I’ve become obsessed with trying to understand—to feel—Hong Kongers’ angst as their city undergoes a precipitous transformation.
Since prodemocracy protests erupted there in 2019, at the same time as anti-corruption demonstrations in Lebanon, I’ve witnessed my own country’s collapse under a plethora of crises: the implosion of its economy, the enormous blast at the Beirut port, and of course the pandemic, all of it wrapped up in endemically corrupt politics and meddling by foreign powers, notably Iran. Decades of progress since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 have been erased, and thousands of Lebanese are rushing for the exit.
Medicine has never been about certainty, but odds.
Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET on October 21, 2021.
A pair of realities: This week, Colin Powell, the former secretary of state whose service under President George W. Bush is most prominently associated with the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, died at 84 due to complications from COVID-19, despite having been fully vaccinated. And: There are conditions under which any generally healthy person would most likely have a seizure.
These facts, as strange as they seem in juxtaposition, are related—neither describes events at all out of the ordinary, and yet both arrive as a kind of shock, with the sense that something must be amiss. They share this: They’re matters of probability, and probability is a fact of life in medicine, and a chaos agent in discourse.