The Twisting of Affirmative Action?

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Mark of New Jersey

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

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  1. Avatar Michael Drew
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    Reading Douthat’s column on college admissions and white racial anxiety, and again listening to him on On Point this week, I’ve been mulling over this question. If a person claims to support class-based affirmative action but no other kind, are they then in a position to find fault with the composition of that group of people a college gives an admission boost to on the basis of family income, if that number would satisfy whatever standard such a person would lay out? In other words, can you say you don’t have a racial or cultural agenda for admissions, and want to privilege only low-income applicants if your critique is that among those students a college admits whom it wouldn’t have otherwise based on merit who are from low-income households, that too many of them are of this or that other category – race, religion, geographic origin, etc.? Because who is to say what the correct “without agenda” baseline that needs to be returned to would be. You’d have to have a position on that, and that too would be an agenda along those axes then, wouldn’t it? Would welcome comments.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Michael Drew
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      @Michael Drew, I’m not sure I follow the question as it’s worded, which may just be because I didn’t read the cited column or listen to On Point. A specific hypothetical may help me, and I suspect I’m sympathetic to your point.

      The thing that I find interesting about Webb’s piece (and unfortunately the part that I really can’t comment on in much depth, although I may change my mind on that) is his argument that the diversity rationale for affirmative action programs primarily benefits immigrant groups that cannot claim to have suffered from the legacy of discrimination in the US. This – says Webb – has the effect of ensuring that poor rural whites who never really benefitted from discrimination in the first place lack opportunities while also drastically limiting the amount to which blacks (who do have to overcome the legacy of discrimination) can actually benefit from AA programs. In essence, Webb seems to be arguing that the diversity rationale for AA pits blacks in a competition with minority groups that don’t have the legacy of discrimination and start with a huge leg up over blacks. I say this is an interesting and compelling point (even as I offer no opinion on its merits) because it’s an argument that I’ve never seen made before but that takes the underlying rationale for AA seriously.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson
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        @Mark Thompson, It would be pretty remarkable if you did follow that. I’m basically just saying that an anti-race-based-affirmative-action position isn’t a race-neutral agenda, it’s just a different agenda from the one being critiqued. If a college is admitting a sufficient number of students from the right income profiles, then that should satisfy someone who claims to be just interested in class-based affirmative action and support no other kind. If they want to rejigger further based on race (because they think the college admits the wrong racial or religious ratio among those economically favored), then that is an agenda beyond a class-based one. That’s my thought, though I think really you could say you’re against anything but class-based advantage and be able to say nothing else should matter but “merit.” But to then be able to say what the admitted classes should look like, you’d need access to the applicant pool, and you’d have to make merit objective, and we know even for students receiving no affirmative action boost (i.e., even legacy), merit isn’t entirely objective at all. So that’s why I come back to insisting on the ending of preferrences in areas where you don’t support them to be a positive agenda, not simple neutrality. Because there is no way for an observer to define what the admitted classes will look like with only the ‘approved’ preferences in place. All you can say is, well the class should have x-number of category C, and that’s one agenda. And if you claim to just have only one criteria/agenda, that’s all you can say, you can’t say “…and that should mean there will be fewer of category D,” claiming that that is a function of your one and only agenda (ie perhaps income). Claiming that corollary is adding another agenda, I think.

        I still don’t expect people to be able to follow that, looking at it.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Michael Drew
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          @Michael Drew, I think you’re on the verge of a plethora of important points here. I suspect your overarching point – that there’s ultimately no such thing as a truly race-neutral admissions policy is probably correct as well (at least so long as there are conceivable criteria where racial disparities exist for one reason or another).

          One thing that bugs the hell out of me, though: Webb’s argument notwithstanding (since it’s not an argument typically made at all by the anti-AA mainstream) why isn’t the main target on the college admissions front the practice of legacy-based admissions?Report

          • @Mark Thompson, I think a lot of people would say that with regards to private universities it should really be up to them. If they want o do legacy stuff, let them. If they want to engineer a more racially diverse campus, let them. Hopefully the market will tell them if this is a good idea. Obviously the policy decisions come under scrutiny with state universities.Report

            • @Mike at The Big Stick, Yeah I understand (although there are certainly some fairly prominent voices who love to use the AA policies of elite private universities as a cudgel). But legacy admissions are still a big issue for a lot of state universities.Report

            • Avatar Rufus in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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              @Mike at The Big Stick, The market’s already told them it’s a good idea. If you have to choose between admitting some kid who’s the scion of a rich family that can donate tremendous sums of money to the alumni association or a somewhat smarter kid whose parents are farmers, the farming kid’s going to lose out. It’s been like that for decades. I’d hope, like you do, that it’s better at State U, and it might well be. But it’s a pretty good reason to be less impressed when you hear that someone went to Harvard or wherever. (Honestly, though, I think it’s just academics that suffer from ivy envy.)Report

            • @Rufus,I would agree that the ivies owe much of their popularity to academic envy. We have a daughter going off to college in two years and we’re starting our early research now. It’s someone comforting to see how much attention smaller schools are getting now. I really would like to see the stranglehold of the top tier universities lose some strength in the coming decades. Those high-priced educations are extremely overrated.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Mark Thompson
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            @Mark Thompson, The continued existence of things like legacy admissions seems pretty clear evidence of what is essentially AA for the rich. It has always appeared like transparent hypocrisy among the anti-AA crowd since they don’t seem to mind it. If people wanted far more class based AA Dem’s would go for it is in second.Report

            • Avatar Rufus in reply to greginak
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              @greginak, Well, it goes both ways too, right? I mean, I’ve known profs at fairly elite schools who were teaching the children of privilege every day, while imagining themselves to be socialists. They tended to be the ones who were the strongest supporters of AA, and I always wondered if that wasn’t motivated by guilt about working as gatekeepers of the class system.Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Michael Drew
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      @Michael Drew, It’s interesting- it’s always sort of bugged me that I’ll encounter people who are furious about affirmative action in college admissions, while not giving a damn about legacies and the like. At William & Mary, there was a real outcry about black students being given a leg up in admissions to the law school. Meanwhile, I knew students there who felt they were in the college solely by their own merits, even if their parents are friends with the Dean, or funding a new wing of the library, or whatever. Given the tuition rates now, universities are becoming the bouncers of the class system anyway.Report

  2. Avatar gregiank
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    It was a pretty good piece. Even a hard bitten radical racialist and socialist like the Prez has said AA should focus more on income then race. Some of what it sounds like Webb is aiming at, class or income based AA, is really old news.

    I like Webb although is he does F up in his first sentence by saying the NAACP called the TP’s racist, they didn’t do that, they asked them to repudiate the racists that were in their group.

    It isn’t a surprise to many of us that class matters a lot and that the poor of all colors get screwed over. In fact i seem to vaguely remember a approximatively 45 minute video of a black woman i saw recently coming to that conclusion….hmmmm i wonder what that was.

    There is a lot of conversation to be had about race and class and the US. And it is so difficult to do.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to gregiank
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      @gregiank, “There is a lot of conversation to be had about race and class and the US. And it is so difficult to do.”

      Totally agreed, and this is a big reason why I linked this piece – it’s one of the few pieces on racial politics that actually tries to deal with the actual questions.

      One (very) minor quibble – Webb didn’t technically say that the NAACP called the entire Tea Party racists. He just said that the NAACP believes the tea party is racist. It’s probably more accurate to say that the NAACP believes that racism is abnormally present in the TP movement, though – otherwise, there’s not much point to passing the resolution at all.Report

  3. I found the article fantastic. The large point it makes (and also what Douthat touched on) is that it’s really all about economics. We see this with education policy as well. Poor white kids have roughly the same level of achievement as poor black kids. I’m not personally a fan of any AA programs but I certainly think other types of programs geared towards giving poor Americans a knowledge and skill base that would make them more competitive in the marketplace is money well-spent. Basically it’s the old, “Teach a man to fish,” philosophy.Report

    • Avatar David in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      @Mike at The Big Stick, While Webb is clearly focused on economics as a relevant factor, it seems his position is more nuanced and that he does believe that it is still necessary to apply affirmative action programs in the case of African Americans who were uniquely harmed. It is this second component that distinguishes his argument from the typical conservative argument that there should be no raced-base preferences at all.Report

  4. Avatar John Howard Griffin
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    There is nothing I enjoy so much as watching those from the dominant and privileged racial group talking about how it is a myth that their racial group is the dominant and privileged one.

    There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.
    – Mark Twain

    Report

    • @John Howard Griffin, I would say that the headline on that piece – which would have been written by a hack at the WSJ trying to make the piece “edgier” – has virtually nothing to do with the article itself. Indeed, I wouldn’t view that piece as being at all about whether “white privilege” is a myth: nowhere in the piece does he even pretend to discuss the question of white privilege. I suppose if one must insist that the piece is about white privilege, then his argument still couldn’t be interpreted as simply that “white privilege is a myth,” but rather that “poor rural whites aren’t terribly privileged, even if middle and upper class whites are.”Report

      • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Mark Thompson
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        @Mark Thompson, I read the post much differently.

        nowhere in the piece does he even pretend to discuss the question of white privilege

        Here are some excerpts:

        “WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers. The time has come to cease the false arguments…”

        “Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs … [have] expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.”

        “…many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony.”

        “…the extrapolation of this logic to all “people of color” …moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites.”

        To me, that certainly looks like someone trying to point to the myth of white privilege. I’ve heard these same arguments for as long as AA has been around.

        This one is the real kicker:

        “Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.”

        The color of their skin makes them a monolith, Mr. White Guy Senator. Have you ever been pulled over by the cops because of the color of your skin? Have you ever had people look at you like you are a criminal because of the color of your skin? How many jobs/promotions did you get passed over because of the color of your skin?

        I can’t wait for Webb’s follow up on the Myth of Male Privilege in Becoming a Senator.

        Now, I’m all for extending more help to the poor of any skin color. But, let’s be honest. The rich are not black, or Asian, or Hispanic (though, there are some that are). In this country, the rich and powerful are WHITE. Spare me the tears, Senator. Fairness won’t just happen. Unless you’re white, of course.Report

        • @John Howard Griffin, Actually, the average and median income for Asians is higher than any other race, including White Russians…err, Caucasians.
          http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032006/perinc/new03_000.htmReport

          • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Mark Thompson
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            @Mark Thompson, how could I be so wrong!?

            It’s the Asians who are the rich and powerful, not the Whites!

            After all, we’ve had all those rich Asian CEOs and Bankers running all the corporations in the U.S. for years! All those Asian Senators and Asian Presidents crowding out the whites! All those rich Asian celebrities and Asian actors! All those important Asians on TV and in the news all the time! All those Asian toys and dolls that the poor white kids have to play with. (I’m sure I’ve overdone this point completely now) /snarkoff

            I didn’t say “the people with the highest average and median incomes are WHITE.” I said “the rich and powerful are WHITE.” But, I’ll change my statement to be more accurate.

            In this country the rich and powerful are WHITE and MALE.Report

            • Avatar Rufus in reply to John Howard Griffin
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              @John Howard Griffin, When it comes to affirmative action, isn’t the more salient point that the poor and powerless are, in America, a Benetton rainbow of diversity?Report

            • @John Howard Griffin, Agreed, but the point of the column is that becoming rich and powerful is simply not an option for a sizable percentage of whites who are born into poverty. “White privilege” may exist, but at least in the realm of education and business, it doesn’t seem to extend much (if at all) to that subset of whites.

              FWIW – I should acknowledge that I am somewhat playing devil’s advocate here, as I tend to think AA programs remain necessary, and fully stand by the piece I wrote on the subject last year: http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2009/06/why-care-about-affirmative-action/

              In particular this: “we still have not overcome the legacy of racial discrimination, and affirmative action policies based on “diversity” are just an attempt to make up for racial discrimination that the institution doesn’t want to acknowledge is racially discriminatory.” (Emphasis added).

              Still, I think Webb’s piece is a far more compelling argument against AA as it currently exists than the usual fare.Report

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to John Howard Griffin
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              @John Howard Griffin, Rufus, most certainly. And, that is really the point that Webb should have been making. But, he couldn’t help throw in some racial resentment in the argument, which renders his arguments impotent. He sounds like he was speaking at the Tea Party Caucus.

              Mark Thompson, this is a good point:

              becoming rich and powerful is simply not an option for a sizable percentage of whites who are born into poverty

              but, becoming rich and powerful is simply not an option for a a much larger percentage of non-whites who are born into poverty. And, I think, that is an even more important point, which Webb did not discuss. His point was about how all of this affected whites.

              Your more refined point:

              make up for racial discrimination that the institution doesn’t want to acknowledge is racially discriminatory.

              gets much more accurately at the deeper issue. And, one that whites don’t feel comfortable acknowledging.

              But, I must disagree, respectfully. Webb’s piece is the same conservative talking points against AA that I’ve heard for decades.Report

  5. Avatar Gorgias
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    The argument makes a tacit assumption that a history of discrimination (or other histories that lead to decreased opportunities) is the only thing affirmative action rectifies. If one believes that affirmative action helps both compensate for the poor starting points owing to the legacy of racism and for current discrimination, the argument for extending it to lower class whites grows much weaker.Report

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