Why Care about Affirmative Action?

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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23 Responses

  1. Bob Cheeks says:

    Do Americans have the right of free association?Report

  2. mike farmer says:

    “Now whatever Pat Buchanan’s, uhh, complicated relationship with mainstream American conservatism and libertarianism, the sentiment in this statement is a pretty common one ”

    Please don’t associate Buchanan with libertarians, even through a complicated relationship. It’s a needless association, and there’s no reason to make it, unless you’re streching for some mysterious purpose. Can you name any prominent libertarian who considers Buchanan a libertarian? His social conservativism is so far from libertarianism, it’s laughable.Report

    • Mike: I wasn’t trying to suggest that Buchanan has ever been considered a libertarian, just that the sentiments in some of the claims he’s making in this column are similar to sentiments I often hear expressed in opposition to affirmative action by both libertarians and conservatives.Report

  3. Freddie says:

    It’s important to point out that in the University of California system, the legislative abolition of affirmative action has resulted in black and Latino students being severely underrepresented in proportion to their percentage of the population. And I have to ask foes of AA: setting everything else aside, do we think that having a situation where there are very few black and Latino people in college is desirable in a fair and stable society? AA discussion is almost always about principle. But what about effects? What are the consequences of an America where college education is essentially required for most people to obtain economic abundance, and there are very few black people in college?Report

    • Evan in reply to Freddie says:

      Yet this highlights the fact the bigger issue isn’t race, but economic mobility, right? If this is the problem being addressed, preferential programs should be based not on race, but on income levels. Applicants with lower income levels would receive a boost in the admissions process at the expense of those in higher income brackets.

      Such a program would certainly have the effect of generally benefiting blacks and Hispanics. That’s fine. But switching to a model based on income allows lower-income whites (including those of Middle Eastern descent, who rarely benefit from these programs) and Asian-Americans to benefit, at the expense of upper-income blacks and Hispanics (who, frankly, don’t need any help in the admissions process).

      Unfortunately, such policies don’t make for very pleasing pamphlet pictures – and they also don’t lead to as many outside contributions from interested groups. Hence, the current regime.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Evan says:

        Well, yes – but only if you first get rid of what are effectively set-asides for rich and upper middle class white kids. Otherwise you get a situation where income backgrounds are equally represented, but racial backgrounds are completely out of proportion.
        IOW – if you want to see affirmative action come to an end, then the very first thing you have to do is put an end to the things that make it necessary.Report

        • Evan in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          Agreed, and I’m sure you read Reason’s piece on legacy admissions awhile back making this point. For what it’s worth, Ward Connerly also opposes legacy admissions.

          Still, to the best of my knowledge no university has attempted a strictly income-based program, and no study has attempted to estimate how different the benefiting groups would be.

          Another issue is that of process versus outcomes. In the legal system, emphasis is rightly placed on the former, even if it allows many guilty individuals to get off scot-free (see: Blackstone). Applying this to affirmative action, the process of racial discrimination is unfair, while its outcomes are fair. Shifting to a more neutral model of income-base would restore fairness to the process, while preserving (IMHO) the fair outcomes.

          (Also, I should note that this applies only to the Cal system, and other public state schools. If a private institution like Princeton decides that it wants the class of 2012 to consist solely of illiterates, Basques, or jugglers, that’s their prerogative. If the federal government decides that this admissions model violates their grant-giving principles, it’s their prerogative to rescind the money.)Report

          • Mark Thompson in reply to Evan says:

            This, however, brings up the other point I was trying to make in this essay: do you even need to scrap race-based AA programs if you move to an income-based AA program? By which I mean – if indeed moving to an income-based program will ensure equitable racial representation (ie in rough proportion to representation in the relevant jurisdiction), then what harm is being done by the race-based AA program? Removing it will, at best, have no effect. At worst, though, it will result in a situation where blacks and Latinos are again under-represented because there is some other legacy of racial discrimination that has not yet been overcome.Report

            • Tyler in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              Why is it class or race instead of class and race?

              That always fascinates me. Sure – poor blacks and whites are getting screwed, but given the way race operates if we had solely class-based affirmative action, its likely that minorities would still be underrepresented because you can always fill a job or a college with poor whites faster (because there are more of them). The class/race debate is all about pitting poor whites against blacks. Why not help both?Report

  4. Evan says:

    Presumably, the goal of preferential programs should be to reduce inequality, as Freddie alludes to. Using race is inferior to using income, as it allows for the potential favoring of a wealthy black/Hispanic applicant over a poor white/Middle Eastern/Asian applicant.

    Further, it allows for a smooth transition of this overcoming (inshallah) of the legacy of racial discrimination. Currently, basing AA on income will heavily favor blacks and Hispanics, even as it allows for the occasional exception. As this legacy of racial discrimination is chipped away at, the AA programs will favor such minorities to a lesser extent, in direct proportion to their improved income status. Rather than waiting for the courts to say (on Lord knows what basis), “Oh, ok, racism’s over,” such an AA program would provide the framework for a gradual shift of race-based assistance, towards a model that more closely resembles a more general assistance (which somewhat dovetails with Hayek’s ideas of welfare).

    It’s not perfect, certainly – but it is preferable to current models.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to Evan says:


      I agree with all of this, but I don’t think it addresses my point above, which may not have been clear. Essentially, you can combine income and race-based AA programs. At some point, the race-based program becomes obsolete and unnecessary, but should never become actively harmful.Report

      • Kyle in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I think you gamed out the race/economic AA programs pretty well above, Mark.

        Interestingly enough, the subject of higher education is where I’m the most sympathetic to the plight of the middle class. On any number of subjects, I think the poor deserve vastly more support than they’re getting/than the middle class. However, I think there’s a middle class squeeze when it comes to education. It’s incredibly difficult to afford or attend a good school but without the advantages of the wealthy or the dedicated assistance to the poor, the middle class have few supports, little sympathy, and high bills.Report

  5. Creon Critic says:

    At the Ivy-level isn’t there already a system of recognition of socio-economic status in need-blind admissions? Replacing student loans with grants at several Ivies (and other programs of this nature) increase the meaningfulness of need-blind admissions. Overall, I don’t see it as an either/or, but a both/and – gender, income/wealth, race etc. can all have consequences for underrepresentation and life chances, so I don’t see the problem with recognizing those facts.Report

  6. Kyle says:

    Great post Mark.

    A few points.

    First, one problem that very few people talk about with race based educational statistics is that we paint a very inaccurate picture of “Asians” with an oversized model minority brush.

    The success of Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent tends to mask the comparatively low performance of pacific islanders, Filipinos, and South Asians generally.

    Second, I think there’s something to be said for socio-economic diversity, but just as there are issues of racial adjustment and sensitivity on campus, I think there’s an enormous learning curve for universities in supporting poor students. Getting them/us in the door is great but succeeding in university is another issue with another solution.

    Increasing the number of students matriculating to college from underrepresented groups is good but it’s only part of the puzzle. There’s a big push to get kids into college. Then a big drop off in supporting them afterwards and not all universities are as supportive as 35K/year should afford

    Third, affirmative action of any stripe only works as long as there is an eligible pool. Currently, only 57 and 53 percent of Hispanics and Blacks graduate high school in four years.


    In that situation, affirmative action is absolutely necessary to restore a meritocracy – it doesn’t stand in the way of meritocracy. In other words, it’s an attempt to approximate what would happen in a discrimination-free environment.

    This is golden.

    My experience at Yale was that the advantages of an upper middle class/wealthy lifestyle were expectations not exceptions. It was assumed your parents were professionals. It was assumed you had access to the informal networks of support and general knowledge base that so exemplify the privileged (largely white) classes in America. Not that there was a stigma for not having these things but they were seen as normal, not privilege.Report

  7. ESC says:

    While the general principles and reasoning behind your argument seem sound enough to me, this statement: “When an affirmative action program is set up as a means of remedying some other form of discrimination, then the presumption is that the only reason the average minority applicant would be less qualfied than a white applicant would be that other form of discrimination, whether past or present. Thus, if you factor that past discrimination into the equation, the two applicants would be equally qualified.” worries me (sorry about the weird formatting). You seem to be assuming that universities can perfectly gauge the effects of the past discrimination. This simply isn’t true. You can’t say, “Oh, well slavery and segregation made the SAT scores of African-Americans go down 100 points, so we’ll just give them a 100 point bump in their consideration.” The factors that may have led to a minority student’s inferior resume are numerous. Discrimination absolutely had an effect; however, the effect is unquantifiable. Thus, affirmative action will fail to truly choose a student based off (hypothetical or otherwise) merit.Report

  8. Trumwill says:

    I’m personally rather conflicted on affirmative action. That being said, there is a pretty big hole here:

    (a)blacks and Latinos are inherently inferior, or (b) we still have not overcome the legacy of racial discrimination,

    (c) There are cultural reasons why some groups are more represented than others. Blacks are not “inherently inferior” so much as their culture is not as geared towards college admissions as are Asian and white cultures. Take two families, one of which insists that their high school career be geared as much as possible to the best college as possible, and the other where the importance of college is not stressed nearly so much… you’re going to get different results regardless of “inherent” traits.

    There are good pro-AA arguments to counter this, namely that killing affirmative action reinforces the notion that minorities are not college material. Or that in order to reverse the mentalities in communities where college preparation is not as widespread you have to strongly reward those within said communities that do more college prep.

    But to suggest that affirmative action supporters are either racists or must admit that racism is such a big force in American society that AA are required is, in my view, a QED that prematurely ends discussion.Report

  9. IRod says:

    it’s easier for a white fellow who attends a public high school in a safe,good environment to get a better education for the simple fact that he or she doesn’t have to worry about any safety issues along the way.We cannot compare a Brooklyn,NY h.s to one in the midwest.When you attend a public school in some inner city schools,you worry more about surviving than learning.I think any students who graduates from any of these high schools deserve to matriculate in a good university even if he/she scores less in his/her SAT test.Let’s be fair.Report