affirmative action

A discussion of affirmative action is difficult because we all mean different things by the term and we read unintended meanings into what others say. What we want is to cast a wider net and value diversity, what we get are quotas or goals based on race. Instead of getting a diversity of ideas, we match and mix colors as if we were selecting furniture for our living room. In the process, we create systems so opaque that even the best students have no idea whether or not they can get into the university of their choice. The system really is not working as intended.

I have included references on an Amazon list.

Affirmative action remains necessary because of how we make judgments and assess the results of our decisions. Judgments are based on experience and we habitually (and often unconsciously) employ shortcuts and rules of thumb to the decisions we make. We couldn’t live our lives without them. Imagine reassessing your preferences each time you walked into a MacDonald’s. Most of us believe our judgments are better than they actually are because of the way we remember them, attributing success to our good sense and sometimes forgetting about failure entirely. But useful shortcuts can be pernicious when working with people of different cultures or backgrounds. We don’t always favor people who are like us, but we always favor people who our preferences favor. That is just a tautology.

The affirmative action I support “casts a wider net” and works affirmatively to overcome traditional and unconscious discrimination. It is not new. Many organizations have employed geographical affirmative action for a long time. The U.S. military academies explicitly balance their classes geographically, although they don’t call it affirmative action, since cadets must come from all the states and each congressional district. The same basic logic is at work when a firm does a nationwide search for applicants. A company based in New York could find all the people it needs locally, but most firms feel they get a better mix if they go nationwide. There is no need for affirmative action to clash with merit, in fact you usually get a better mix.

Affirmative action, as most people understand it today has drifted from the model above. It was initially conceived as a way to compensate for past discrimination and applied to black and female applicants for jobs and universities. Gender affirmative action worked very well, maybe too well, to the extent that females are now a majority among undergraduates at the nations best universities. The situation with black applicants has been less successful.

Instead of casting a wider net, firms and universities established goals and defacto quotas. The University of Michigan actually had a point system, whereby an applicant got an extra 20 points for being black and only 13 points for a perfect SAT score. The Supreme Court declared this particular application unconstitutional last year, but universities clearly are still using less explicit criteria to accomplish the same objective. Does it make sense?

Goals and quotas based on race are clearly not fair. The son of a black millionaire would get preference over the son of a white unemployed high school drop under many of these schemes. The more important question might be, does it work? The jury is out on that one. Some have argued (in the books I have included on the list) that it does indeed help individual blacks and by extension the greater black community. Others say that it is harmful since it perpetuates race consciousness and often hurts even the supposed beneficiaries since they are pushed too far too fast and often fail.

I think I can add a personal insight in this regard. I am the white son of high school dropouts, who went to a city school and didn’t learn much. Fortunately for me, I got into a small state school that gave opportunity to learn, but didn’t expect much. By the time I finished my undergrad, I had caught up with my better-prepared peers and went on to a better education and a good job. I am convinced that had I been pushed into a competitive Ivy League School, I would have justifiably flushed out and maybe had no college education at all. My test scores were very good, but my study habits were abysmal and my attitude was worse.

What am I saying about affirmative action? I support the first type, but I oppose goals and timetables. We should be concerned with making the criteria transparent. Individuals and groups have the responsibility to adapt to high standards. If we based admissions on grades and SATs, we would likely to have Asians overrepresented; whites underrepresented and African Americans significantly underrepresented at elite universities. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Virtually every student who wants to go to university in the U.S. can find a place. Maybe, like me, some will find a more appropriate places. Achievements are rarely distributed evenly over populations but over time, the distributions change, so the current situation is not forever.

The problem does not start in college and can't be solved there. We need to invest more in our schools for all pupils and we have to change the habits of students and parents who may not understand the value of education. Lest I be accused of elitism, I will again speak from my own experience. When I told my father that I was taking a test for an important position, he told me to “forget it! Those things are only for rich kids.” (In fairness to him, he did value education, but his horizon on it was limited) I didn’t take his advice. This kind of advice clearly has the capacity to become self-fulfilling. Had I chosen to embrace the excuse, it would have been true. No two people have the same chance in life. It is not fair. But we all have a choice.

This subject is much bigger than I can handle on these pages. I look forward to your comments.

Posted by Jack at November 14, 2004 12:57 AM