What Statistics Can’t Tell Us in the Fight over Affirmative Action at Harvard

Andrew Gelman, Sharad Goel, and Daniel E. Ho in the Boston Review:

Just over forty years ago the Supreme Court struck down race-based quotas in school admissions while also upholding the core tenets of affirmative action. In the landmark 1978 decision, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., singled out Harvard’s admissions program as an exemplar for achieving diversity and applauded the university’s own description of its policy, according to which the “race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases.” As the Supreme Court would later emphasize, such review considered race merely a “factor of a factor of a factor.”

Harvard’s policy is now being challenged in federal district court in a suit that could reshape the role of race in college admissions.

In past efforts to dismantle affirmative action—from Bakke to, most recently, a case brought by two white women against the University of Texas—the plaintiffs have alleged that race-conscious admissions policies hurt white applicants. But courts have consistently held that race may be employed to achieve the educational gains that stem from a diverse student body when considered “holistically,” as one among many factors. The latest legal salvo takes a different, and potentially more potent, tack. The litigants argue that Harvard, in its quest for racial diversity, unjustly penalizes a minority group: Asian Americans.

More here.