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In my last post, I mentioned the negative reaction by law professors at Stanford. At least as hyperbolic and vicious was the reaction by students and colleagues of Sander at the UCLA law school. Their reaction began after the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Katherine S. Mangan wrote an article about Sander’s research.[xviii] Her article, although it briefly quotes two supporters of Sander, mostly contains quotes from Sander’s critics.
Here, for instance, are some passages from the article:
Critics say Mr. Sander’s data do not support his findings, and they have accused him of leaping to unfounded and inflammatory conclusions. Some critics worry that legislators who oppose affirmative action will seize the report to support efforts to end racial preferences. And they are concerned that it could discourage black students from applying to law school.
Sander’s article is premised upon a series of statistical errors, oversights, overgeneralizations, and several implausible (and at times internally contradictory) assumptions.
[Richard Geiger, dean of admissions at Cornell Law School] says Mr. Sander’s report does not offer new information.
“I really wonder whether it’s going to be more than a dazzling light show of statistics that in the end doesn’t tell us much new or offer much in terms of a solution,” says Mr. Geiger.
He adds that he finds Mr. Sander’s suggestion that black students are misled about their chances of succeeding as lawyers “kind of paternalistic.”
Sander quickly wrote a 30-page rebuttal of the principal critics quoted by Mangan, showing in painstaking detail that every error alleged by the critics resulted from using inaccurate data (data Sander often suspected was simply made up) or faulty reasoning. Colleagues who read Sander’s response were shocked by the recklessness of the critics. Mangan refused to do a follow-up story correcting the allegations.
At UCLA, many of Sander’s colleagues were warmly supportive; however, some on the far left were openly hostile. One was a close friend of Sander, Rick Abel, who gave interviews mischaracterizing Sander’s work and distributed critiques of it to the faculty. Another left-leaning colleague, seeing Sander eating lunch with a group of students asked them, “Why are you fraternizing with the enemy?”
The dean of the law school, Michael Schill, eventually felt compelled to address the controversy. As Sander told me:
Dean Schill, who had earlier praised (to me) my [Stanford Law Review] article to the skies, sent an email to the “law school community” that was implicitly critical of the article but urged calmness and defended my right to publish scholarship. There was very wide interest in having a forum at school to discuss it. Schill told the community (and me) that he wanted to take the time to organize a proper event, which would be held in January 2005.
As Schill told Sander, he wanted to invite some “high quality social scientists,” to debate Sander. However, by January, he changed his mind. As Sander notes:
Schill informed me that he was canceling the event, purportedly because he couldn’t find any “debate opponent” acceptable to both me and the Critical Race Studies faculty (a ridiculous claim, since I had agreed to appear with virtually anyone). I then decided to organize an event, and Meredith Philips (of the policy school) agreed to come if we could do it in the spring quarter. So I set a date for April.
“Meanwhile,” said Sander, “I hear all these terrible things being said about me, like my motivation is simply to prevent black people from becoming lawyers.”
Once word began to spread about the forum, a group of 120 students signed a petition, asking Sander to postpone it. “Holding this debate,” they wrote, “while finals are pending can only negatively impact student morale.”
Dean Schill, after learning of the petition, echoed their wishes in an email to Sander:
Rick, I have been running my you know what off for the better part of three days trying to get admitted students to accept our offer of admission. Part of that effort is to make minority students feel comfortable with the school, despite the controversy about affirmative action. I would greatly appreciate it if students respond to you with anger or hurt feelings that you do not ratchet up the debate. Having this issue come up now is not helpful to our efforts to recruit students. Thanks. Mike
Sander considered rescheduling the forum. However, none of the people who asked him to delay it would commit to an alternative date. So Sander stuck with the original date.
On the day of the forum, several students protested near the entrance. They distributed flyers and led chants, urging people to boycott the event.
“My critics,” said Sander, “had created a simplified, distorted picture of my work, and the pro-affirmative action folks at UCLA didn’t want the caricature to be displaced.”
Why It Takes a Nixon to Go to China, Why Progressives Were so Vicious to Sander
If you hang around college campuses long enough, you quickly learn that left wing students and professors, at least at times, can be vicious. I must say, however, their reaction toward Sander was even more vicious than usual. All Sander had done, after all, was publish an academic study, which, without the attention from the left wing protests, would have been read by no more than a few hundred people.
Indeed, an argument can be made that left wing students and professors should have been angrier at me when I resigned from the admissions committee than they were at Sander. First, my resignation probably received more attention from the media than Sander’s study. Moreover, I believe my resignation had the greater potential to change policy—that is, to abolish or scale back affirmative action.
Yet, unlike people’s reaction to Sander, no one staged a protest at any of my public speeches. No dean tried to pressure me to change any of my actions. No professors conducted studies to claim that I was wrong. Further, as I’ve verified with Sander, he probably received fifty times as many hate emails and phone calls as I received.
The reason I think the attacks against Sander were so vicious is because, unlike me, his political views are progressive. Yes, I mean that—the viciousness he experienced was because of, not in spite of, his progressive political views.
Unlike me, Sander voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. In fact, except for 1980, when he voted for John Anderson, he has always voted Democratic in presidential elections. Although he’s right-of-center on affirmative action and perhaps moderate on taxes, he’s liberal on just about every other policy. For instance, he’s pro-choice on abortion, favors gay marriage, and wishes the U.S. healthcare system were even more liberal than ObamaCare. He and his wife both drive Priuses because they want “to keep our ecological footprint as small as possible.”
Why would progressives be so vicious to one of their own? The reason involves an insight from a branch of game theory called signaling theory. The insight is that the credibility of a message depends partly on the tastes and values of the person sending it.
For instance, suppose you’re a referee in a football game, and a player on the defense makes a questionable hit against a player on the offense. If the coach of the offense yells “Hey, that hit was illegal,” then you probably won’t pay much attention to him. You’d think, “The coach is just trying to lobby for his team, something he’d do whether the hit was illegal or not.”
But what if the defensive coach made the same statement—that is, what if he admitted that his own player made an illegal hit? If so, you’d be much more likely to believe him and conclude that the hit was illegal.
Note that you’d treat the same statement differently, depending on who said it. When it comes from the offensive coach, the statement is easily dismissed. But when it comes from the defensive coach—whose preferences naturally make him unlikely to make such a statement—you treat it as important information.
Researchers in signaling theory often use the phrase, “It takes a Nixon to go to China,” to illustrate the above principle. The idea is that if a known anti-communist claims that the U.S. would benefit from relations with China, then you’d treat his statement much more credibly than you would if it came from someone without the anti-communist credentials.
Because of this principle, when Sander—a person who votes for Democrats, favors gay marriage, and drives a Prius—says “research shows that affirmative action is actually harmful to racial minorities,” people are more likely to be persuaded by the statement than if a Republican, such as me, had said it.
For that reason, advocates of racial preferences, if they’re smart, will work extra hard to discredit Sander’s arguments, and if they need, to discredit him personally. If they don’t, he could actually be effective at abolishing racial preferences, a policy they hold dear.
Why Sander’s Critics didn’t call him a Racist
On July 20, 2010, the Daily Caller ran an expose of Journolist, an online forum for far-left journalists. At the time, members of Journolist were angry because several conservative journalists, as well as a few mainstream journalists, reported how Barack Obama’s minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, preached that the US deserved to be hit by the 9-11 tragedy. As he told his parishioners, “No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America.”
Spencer Ackerman, a left wing journalist, discussed how his fellow Journolist members should respond:[xix]
It’s not necessary to jump to a Wright-qua-Wright defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously, I mean this rhetorically.
And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead take one of them—Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares—and call them racists.
When Sander published his Stanford Law Review piece, he angered, in very significant ways, many racial-justice advocates who studied or taught in law schools. He angered them, I believe, at least as much as the Reverend Wright story angered the Journolist reporters. Like the Journolist reporters, the critics of Sander could not attack the factual claims of Sander. Like the Reverend Wright story, those claims were true.
Why, one might ask, didn’t they adopt the same strategy as the Journolist reporters? Why didn’t they just call him a racist?
One reason was that Sander had done much to help civil-rights causes. This included being the president of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California, and founding the Fair Housing Institute.
Perhaps more significant, however, Sander was once married to a black (Haitian) woman and is the father of a biracial child. Sander’s critics, I believe, knew those facts. They realized they’d look silly if they called him a racist.
In fact, part of the reason he sometimes argues against racial preferences is because he’s witnessed up close, and felt personally, the ill effects they can have.
One instance involved his son, Robert, who is half African American and half Caucasian. In Fall 2007, when Robert began applying to colleges, he wondered how he should handle his racial identity in his applications. After much thought, he decided neither to hide it nor to emphasize it. He ended up accepting an offer from the University of Washington, which then (and now) was barred from using racial preferences by Prop 200, passed by Washington voters in 1998.
Robert had a strong high school background in basic science, and he was thinking about a career in medicine, science, or engineering – particularly bioengineering. The spring before college, an African American aunt persuaded him to apply to a summer program for aspiring black doctors. He was accepted, and the program was fun – it brought together a few dozen African American high school seniors who had done well in high school and were generally interested in the sciences. They spent time discussing medical careers and campus survival, did some volunteer work inside hospitals, and – most importantly – studied inorganic chemistry. The idea of the chemistry course was to discuss with students academic strategies for success in the context of an actual course, and to give them a leg up on their college coursework.
Unfortunately, however, the course—which aimed to build confidence among the students—covered the material in a fairly unchallenging way.
Robert breezed through the course. Without devoting much effort, he received a high “A,” and the University of Washington gave him credit for completing a first-quarter level of a college inorganic chemistry class.
Once at the University of Washington, Robert duly skipped first-quarter inorganic chemistry and enrolled in the second-quarter class. He soon realized, however, that the summer course only covered a fraction of the material that a true first-quarter college class would cover, and he found himself well behind his classmates. Whereas the summer course was easy and relaxing, the University of Washington course was intense and demanding.
Robert adopted new work habits, but not in time to save his grade, which was just barely high enough to maintain his chance of qualifying for the competitive program in bioengineering.
While the summer program was designed to help minorities succeed in science, it ended up doing the opposite. By creating a (largely artificial) mismatch problem, it actually hampered Robert’s learning and left him demoralized.
“It’s pretty awful what universities are doing,” said Sander (Robert’s father). “They should at least be honest about the racial preferences. I don’t think they realize how much they’re ruining people’s lives.”
[xviii] Katherine S. Mangan, “Affirmative Action Hurts Black Students, Study Finds,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 4, 2004. http://www.calstate.edu/pa/clips2004/november/4nov/affirm.shtml
[xix] Jonathan Strong, “Documents Show Media Plotting to Kill Stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright,” Daily Caller, July 20, 2010, http://dailycaller.com/2010/07/20/documents-show-media-plotting-to-kill-stories-about-rev-jeremiah-wright/.