Dec 15 2011

They took ‘ur jaaaeerrrbs!

An all-too common complaint about assertive anti-racism; that is, taking steps to correct for injustices borne of systemic racism – like affirmative action programs or race-based scholarships – is that it ends up putting white people at a disadvantage. After all, if there are two people going for the same spot, whether it be a job or a university admission slot, and one of them is a visible minority, affirmative action policies discriminate against someone whose only crime was being born white.

Everyone and her brother has a story of a cousin’s friend or aunt’s next-door neighbour who lost out on a job ze was qualified before because it instead went to a less-qualified person of colour (PoC). If we are trying to do away with racism, why is it that it’s okay for the system to be racist against whites? Aren’t we sacrificing the future of white people on the altar of correcting historical injustice? When do we stop over-correcting?


I’ve actually heard some say that the scales are tipped against white people, since there aren’t any scholarships given out for being white, and with the huge raft of race-based scholarships, qualified white students just can’t seem to compete. It certainly seems as though a large swath of white people in the United States feel as though it’s now tougher to be white than black. How can whites hope to compete when bleeding heart liberals have put all the opportunities in the hands of minorities?

While I can appreciate the appeal of these arguments, the facts tell quite another story:

Kantrowitz crunched data (PDF) from both the 2003-04 and 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which showed that white students are 40 percent more likely to win private scholarships than non-white students.


White students, even those who “have no demonstrated financial need,” are also at an advantage when it comes to receiving funding directly from universities. Kantrowitz found that they get more than 76 percent “of all institutional merit-based scholarship and grant funding, even though they represent” less than 62 percent of the student population.

Mark Kantrowitz actually bothered to test these claims, and as it turns out white students actually still receive more than their fair share (by number) of scholarships. He also found numerous examples of ‘whites only’ scholarships (and a number of nationality-based scholarships for people of European descent), but we’ll leave that one alone for now. What’s worth noting is that the claim that the majority of scholarships go to dark-skinned students is not even close to true – to the contrary in fact.

The data analyzed came from national survey of more than 114,000 undergraduate and 14,000 graduate students across the United States, based on how they paid for school:

Click to enlarge

As you can see from the table above, while 5.5% of students received any scholarships at all, a disproportionate amount (6.1%) were white. Put another way, while white students represent 62%of the student population surveyed, they received 65% of the total funding. If liberals had truly done away with all sense of fairness, the chart would look quite different – with white students getting a slice of the pie much smaller than their numbers would suggest.

The relationship between race and scholarship gets much more polarized when you break it down further, which the study does:

Click to enlarge

This table shows that even for needs-based federal Pell grants, white students are favoured over PoC students (with the exception of Asian and Native American students – perhaps two discussions for another time). Theoretically, even if the scholarships were skewed against PoC students because of things like ability to participate in extracurricular activities, the needs-based grants would even things out. That appears not to be the explanation either.

Even when only considering students with exceptional grades – those students who arguably are the most ‘qualified’ for post-secondary positions, we see the same effect. White students, representing 70% of the high-achieving population, receive 72% of total scholarship funding, meaning that even merit-based scholarships are given disproportionately to white students. This fact, when considered in terms of dollars per grade, means that PoC students have to achieve a 0.25 higher GPA to be on equal footing with a white student. If that student is black, incidentally, that achievement gap widens to 0.40 GPA (which is scored on a scale of 4.0 – basically you’ve got to be 10% better to qualify if you’re black).

“But Crommunist,” I can hear you saying “surely the individual schools give entrance scholarships that balance this out. After all, my mailman’s wife’s best friend has a son that didn’t get an entrance scholarship because it went to all the Latinos!” Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

Click to enlarge

Scholarships given out by individual universities, at least those based on merit (I assume this means grades, primarily) are even more skewed towards white students, with the 62% of white students receiving nearly 76% of the funding.

The study goes into much greater detail – too much to really put in the space of one blog post, but the TL/DR version is as follows:

Overall, merit-based grants tend to disproportionately select for Caucasian students. This is compensated somewhat by the distribution of need-based grants according to race, since minority students tend to be less affluent than Caucasian students. Shifting funding from merit-based grants to need-based grants will yield more balance in the distribution of grants according to race, but it will not entirely compensate for private scholarships that collectively demonstrate implicit preferences for Caucasian students.

Many of these differences did not seem monumentally skewed against PoC students. While white students receive a disproportionately large slice of the pie, it is not exactly twisted beyond all semblance of fairness. I’m sure that with a few tweaks and an increase in the number of need-based scholarships we can see a more balanced picture. That’s not the point, though. There are a lot of people who believe, in their heart of hearts, that white people are now receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to things like college placement. The truth is precisely the opposite.

It is for this reason that I advocate folding racism into the list of skeptical topics. Claims about racism, particularly claims about “reverse racism”, are testable and subject to evaluation using evidence-based techniques. There is nothing magical about race that means that it should be free of scrutiny, and it arguably demonstrably causes more harm than belief in UFOs or reiki. Skeptics are the perfect people to be examining these topics, and the sooner we do, the easier the transition to a fairer society becomes.

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  1. 1
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    The footnotes say that Native American and Pacific Island numbers may be innacurate because of a small sample size.

  2. 2
    James Sweet

    It took me a long time to come around on affirmative action, because it’s just kinda one of those “feels wrong” solutions. In engineering parlance, we’d call it a “kluge” — it’s an inelegantly tacked on to an existing system to fix some problem that we can’t come up with a better way of fixing.

    Eventually I did come around, though, and stuff like this is a really important part I think of getting other people to understand it. Even with affirmative action, the deck is still stacked against minorities. Clearly the “kluge” is necessary, and is not at all an overreaction — if anything these numbers show it is an underreaction.

  3. 3

    The thing that bothers me most about the anti-racism argument is that it is technically correct: if a piece of the pie (no matter how slim it may be) is definitely going to go to you then there is less that I could possibly get. People take that single statement and can immediately see it for it’s truthiness. The fact that I already have 60% of the pie is irrelevant to the point trying to be made: someone more deserving than you could be missing out on that slim piece of pie simply because of his skin colour. What do you mean I should give up a piece of my 60% of the pie to this more deserving person? I worked hard for this pie! :P

    An interesting anecdote that I’d love to get your take on though.
    In college, my wife had a friend who was awarded an African-American scholarship. She was actually born and raised in Africa, her parents were African, but they eventually immigrated to the USA, thus she was about as African-American as you could get.
    The twist in the story, of course, is that she was white. Her parents were white. I believe it was her Grandparents that had originally moved to Africa, though I’m not sure where (given the time period, I would guess the UK maybe? Besides the point).
    Anywho, when it was discovered that she was only technically African-American, not the black skin tone commonly associated with the term African-American, they tried to revoke the scholarship. As I understand it they relented and let her keep the scholarship and she eventually went on to graduate, but since my wife told me this story a couple of years ago it has occasionally floated to the surface of my thoughts as one of those things where I can’t really decide what is right. On the one hand, the intent of the scholarship is to give those who would otherwise be at a disadvantage, as the statistics you’ve provided show. On the other hand, it seems to be intended not just for the black population, but specifically the black population descended from Africa who have their own distinct cultural history from the black/brown populations descended from India, South America, Native Australia, etc… a culture which, despite her skin colour, my wife’s friend was steeped in her entire life.
    I do know one thing though: it has deepened my white-privileged disdain for the term “African-American”.

  4. 4

    Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe it’s just that this sort of thing ends up with things like the ‘cap on asian students’, proposed because – wait for it – white students have trouble competing. Maybe it’s because treating people as inescapably part of different groups that are in permanent competition is a really, really bad idea.

    Factual point:

    White students, representing 70% of the high-achieving population, receive 72% of total scholarship funding, meaning that even merit-based scholarships are given disproportionately to white students.

    Disproportionate, huh? 70% vs. 72%. I wonder what the standard deviation on that study was.

    I’ll restate my position: it’s a good thing to be vigorously colourblind (e.g. have entrance exams marked by people who can’t even see the names of the students) and also a good thing to seek out talent in hitherto underdeveloped human areas. It is a very, very bad idea to dole out any benefit based on colour.

    There are a lot of people who believe, in their heart of hearts, that white people are now receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to things like college placement.

    That’s certainly true, especially amongst the nasty pieces of work who haunt the cyber-wilderness around WND and so on. It’s good to get the facts out about this stuff.

  5. 5

    That is, it’s certainly true that that’s widely believed.

  6. 6

    Disproportionate, huh? 70% vs. 72%.

    I don’t follow your objection. From my reading The Crommunist was talking about two different types of scholarships. One kind based on merit (higher GPA) and one based on need (lower income bracket). If white students compose 70% of higher achieving students and receive 72% of total funding (meaning they”re receiving both more merit based scholarships and more need based scholarships) they’re getting a larger than fair piece.

  7. 7

    I wonder how much of this is just the general privilege whites have in society and not unconscious racism. Whites (even poorer and lower achieving whites) tend to have quicker and easier access to someone well informed (or at least dedicated to learning) about scholarships and how applications for them work. That and the expectation to succeed might account for some of the distribution we’re seeing.

  8. 8

    The authors suggest that a lot of it, particularly the private scholarships, are tied to activities that tend to favour white students: equestrian, swimming, 4H, etc. The institution-based entrance scholarships aren’t like that though, which should be of particular concern.

  9. 9
    Ian B

    I’d love to hear your take on the gender quotas just passed by the BC NDP for the next election.

  10. 10

    Send me a link to the relevant document and I’ll have a look.

  11. 11

    The trouble is that it is an inelegant kludge, and I would be shocked if there weren’t much more elegant ways of dealing with the problem, but until someone actually has a specific writeup of a better way and gets significant political traction for it, the inelegant kludge is what we’ve got. A large part of the difficulty of getting political traction towards a better, more elegant solution is the mindset Crommunist is describing above, where white people tend to believe that problems of systemic racism are already over.

  12. 12

    I had a schoolteacher who was from South Africa (yes, that South Africa). He estimated that the number of people in his country who would be considered white in the United States was zero. Everyone he knew had at least one recent ancestor who was African Native. I’ve met a number of people from South Africa, and though anecdotes are not data, they all agree with his assessment.

  13. 13
    Kate from Iowa

    These kinds of things are exactly the reason I so detest the term African-American. It makes no sense, particularly when the nearest experience of 90% of the people using it have no other connection to Africa other than that cab driver from Senegal they met one Tuesday. I have several South African friends, some black, some white. The white South Africans are no less African for being white, after all, Africa is a place, just like Spain is a place. Interesting point of fact…Spain also has black people.

    They think it’s really funny when they visit the US and get referred to as African American.

  14. 14
    Kate from Iowa

    The concern there might need to be spread across a few areas, as well. There’s always the chance (to use David’s pie analogy) that someone or a group of someones was simply not told there was going to be any dessert.

  15. 15

    This reminds me of what happened a decade or so ago when the University of California announced it was doing away with Affirmative Action in its admissions policy and going just on qualifications alone. White Californians were overjoyed, until the first crop of entrants under the new system came out. All ethnic groups, including whites, took a big hit as admissions went heavily to East Asian students. Oops!

  16. 16
    Jim Baerg

    I suppose I would prefer need based scholarships over ethnic based scholarships as less kludgy. However, my impression is that the quality of elementary schooling for people born to poverty is a really major factor holding them back.

  17. 17

    Inevitably, someone will bring this one up. The problem with this construction is that it ignores the fact that ethnicity is integrally associated with disadvantage. Poor black and latino people are more disadvantaged than whites of equivalent poverty levels, as the numbers in the column above start to show (There are a lot of other ugly numbers relating to homeownership, wealth (as opposed to income) and capital availability as well). That’s why affirmative action and other ethnically targeted programs are necessary, to overcome specific structural barriers not present elsewhere. I would argue that we need a large increase in generalized poverty reduction strategies as well, of course, but that’s not directly germane to discussions of affirmative action.

  18. 18

    I’ve always been against the idea of “reverse-racism,” but up until now, I only had a vague understanding as to why. This seals the deal for me.

    I have bookmarked this, and will use it the when my cousin and I inevitably get into this argument again.

    Thanks :)

  19. 19

    Well said, Dalillama.

  20. 20

    As a recent PhD looking for a job, I am curious if you happen to know of similar data for graduate students and university faculty hiring practices. My own anecdata don’t have any bearing on undergrad level scholarships, but suggest that grad level scholarships (at the institution I attended for my PhD, basically the only substantial grad-level scholarship program is RISE, which targets PoC), and faculty hiring practices (of faculty hires that I have any familiarity with–admittedly quite a small number!–a preference for female and/or PoC candidates has been the deciding factor in about half) may be biased in favor of PoC or women.

  21. 21
    Nice Ogress

    I once had it out with a ‘friend’ of mine about his anecdata that white men just couldn’t get decent jobs anymore. I pointed out that the implicit assumption in all his stories was that the woman/PoC/etc who got the job was unqualified for it, or at least less qualified than the white guy who didn’t get the job, and that it seemed highly unlikely that that was going to be the case every time.

    “Well, what’re you saying? That white guys can’t do the work? I’M OFFENDED.”
    “Look, there’s a MILLION REASONS someone doesn’t get hired on a job. Maybe you – sorry, ‘your friend’ – didn’t get the job because he’s a self-centered, priveleged jerk, and they told you – er, him – they gave it to someone else because it was easier than saying it to his face.”
    “I wouldn’t hire ya.”

    We stopped talking after that.

  22. 22

    I’m a white South African and this kinda made me go, “Mmmmmrrrrrhhhhhh.” Just doesn’t quite sit with me. I think the thing is you have to divide the term “African” into “objectively African” and “culturally African.” I am objectively African because that’s where I’m from, but in terms of being culturally African I lie on some grey continuum – the suburb I live in is a miniature Western country.

    See, the majority of Africa is black. Europeans arrived (in South Africa at least) only in the 1600s, when there were already established cultures. Europeans did NOT assimilate, they dominated. As a result, there are elements of “white” culture that have been adopted by people of all colours in South Africa – such as most people speaking either English or Afrikaans, and eating traditionally Afrikaans foods. (The trickiest part of this concept is the coloured population, who struggle with being neither white enough nor black enough to fit into broad generalisations.)

    Anyway, though many elements of “white” culture have been adopted by PoC, elements of pre-Colonial African (black) culture are still very prominent – and have not been adopted by whites. A white person actually has to work very hard to even understand these practises (such as Lobola or traditional medicine). Not only are many white people in Africa privileged, but they also have different social structures from many black people. Tribalism is a huge social issue in African countries, but it stems from pre-Colonial times – there are no white tribes, and therefore white Africans are not directly involved in this issue.

    I don’t like the term African American for people *from* Africa – Africa is a huge and diverse continent, with complex class structures in each region. I don’t see how it’s a useful classification. (If I were a School of Foreign Service or an aid organisation, I wouldn’t just accept “African” applicants and call it diversity – I would like for deep understanding of the nuances of the area I was focussing on and hands-on experience.)

    I think since everyone knows what African American means, it’s a fine term for black Americans. Although I would be able to navigate my own country better than an African American tourist, I’m not going to deny the importance of skin colour. Black South Africans and black Americans both share the awareness of white oppression – Steve Biko was apparently inspired by Malcolm X – and I won’t deny the importance of that.

    What’s interesting to see now is North Africans moving into typically African American areas in the States. It sets up a social experiment to see whether African Americans really do have a link to Africa based on how the communities interact with each other.

    Also, etherial, your teacher was BS-ing you bigtime…

  23. 23

    Hey so I totally just threw this in the face of someone who tried to claim that minorities are privileged when it comes to scholarships.

    Thx Crommunist <3

  24. 24

    Boom! Nothing like a good fact to ruin a bad story.

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