The Future of Affirmative Action

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75 Responses

  1. Murali says:

    Hi Aaron, thought provoking post! Just a few comments.

    You might want to make a distinction, or at least make clear a connection that doesnt seem obvious at all.

    Clearly, at the level of law enforcement etc some, maybe even lots of nasty stuff are happening. In this way, there is continued discrimination against minorities (especially blacks and hispanics). What is not clear (at least since I dont live in the US) is how this translates into fewer black and hispanic students enrolling into universities, especially in those places where there are race blind decision procedures. It seems to me that the biggest obstacles to black and hispanic enrolment are cyclic poverty issues and culture issues (middle class black parents spend more money buying their kids computer games than middle class white parents or something)Report

    • Murali in reply to Murali says:


      Its only after you clear the above issues up that your argument for affirmative action gets off the ground. Even then, it is not clear that systemic privelege is the sort of thing that can be balanced by compensating for one group’s privelege in one area by pressing our thumb on the scals in another. That is a really fishy move and it needs to be defended. That’s a fairly tall order.Report

      • Aaron in reply to Murali says:

        Murali– Thanks for your comments. While it’s probably true that racism and discrimination in law enforcement and the judiciary don’t directly impact minority admission rates, those aren’t the only institutions where racism is alive today. In general, racial minorities have a harder time getting a job relative to equally qualified white candidates, and it’s not hard to imagine (though I don’t have the data to back it up) that similar processes are sometimes are work in college admissions. So no, affirmative action in college admissions wouldn’t directly impact problems with racism in law enforcement; it’s not a silver bullet. But it would help address racial disparities in education and improve minority social status in general.

        The flip side to this, of course, is that I’m not just talking about affirmative action in higher education – I think it could be beneficial in the way institutions recruit and hire workers in general. Affirmative action programs for police forces might actually help reduce discrimination on the part of these entities (though I recognize that racist attitudes and practices are resilient, and this wouldn’t be a silver bullet either).Report

        • Kim in reply to Aaron says:

          Interestingly enough, the American Government’s Scientists are a remarkably diverse bunch. No Affirmative Action necessary — they just take anyone who’s qualified. Turns out that a lot of minorities were willing to accept a lower pay for a decent workplace.Report

          • Aaron in reply to Kim says:

            That is interesting! I would actually be very interested to see historical studies of this sort of thing in different government agencies and to compare their records. Does anything know if something like this is out there?Report

      • Aaron in reply to Murali says:

        And as far as “culture issues” go, I’m with Kim – I’m willing to bet that it’s white privilege overwhelmingly that hinders minorities, not laziness, avoiding “white” jobs, etc. No matter how many minority individuals one can find who conform to these stereotypes, the “culture issues” explanation seems to distract from much stronger and pervasive systemic issues that disadvantage minorities.Report

        • Murali in reply to Aaron says:

          pervasive systemic issues that disadvantage minorities.

          Systemic issues which disadvantage minorities is different from discrimination and may or may not be different from privelege.

          Why? because one major set of factors which is poverty and endemic lack of opportunity are not part of any systematic or even non-systematic but frequent background discrimination. i.e. its a poverty issue, maybe even a childhood nutrition issue or a broken family issue. i.e. all these poverty related factors can make it such that african americans have a significantly tougher time getting into college. The proper response to such problems need not, and probably shouldnt be playing around with admission criteria. i.e. as a libertarian, I’d rather countenance welfare than affirmative action.Report

    • Kim in reply to Murali says:

      around teh only culture issue that I can see is that blacks tend to prefer snack food, which leads to overweight kids, which leads to lower outcomes.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kim says:

        Other culture issus could be things like more video game consumption, pressures against acting white, pressures to push for non-academic non-white jobs. My informal observation of the malay and indian culture in singapore seems to yield a similar dynamic going on.Report

        • Kim in reply to Murali says:

          … non-academic jobs used to be a ladder into the middle class. So try again on that one.
          I doubt we’ve got more video game consumption based on class/race.Report

  2. “In our decidedly non-post-racial society, affirmative action is just as important as when the concept was introduced by JFK in 1965.”

    Um…no? Not even a little bit. The achievement gap is almost 100% attributable to problems within minority communites, not outside forces pushing them down.Report

    • NoPublic in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      The achievement gap is almost 100% attributable to problems within minority communites, not outside forces pushing them down.

      [citation needed]Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to NoPublic says:

        Citation provided. “41% of single mother Black families are living in poverty compared to only 7 percent of married-couple Black families.”

        National poverty rate: 9.8% Married black families rate: 6.7% All married couple families: 4.6%

        Not 100%, but in the ballpark. Married black family poverty rates are comparable to the general population. When you get into female-headed households, the walls cave in. This is the issue, and cannot be fixed by affirmative action.

        BTW, as recently as 1950, black and white marriage rates were also comparable, blacks even holding the edge at some times.Report

    • Kim in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      … 30% of people who were middle class as kids are now not middle class, because they’re lower class. Numbers higher among blacks and hispanics, of course.
      Yay social mobility!
      The “blacks are lazy” attitude is not appreciated.
      White privilege means that most whites have wealth that they were given as free handouts, that blacks were not entitled to.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kim says:

        White privilege means that most whites have wealth that they were given as free handouts, that blacks were not entitled to.

        Something seems wrong with this sentence… dont you mean that whites were not entitled to it?Report

        • Kim in reply to Murali says:

          yup. converse is also true. Except that I’d rather not debate Homestead act, or FHA loans — i’d rather say that blacks are entitled to more support than whites NOW, because they have less Means NOW, because of horrible racist things Then.Report

        • NoPublic in reply to Murali says:

          As I noted in another thread recently in regards to charity, there is nearly no unburdened real property in the world (I think there’s probably some chunks of the polar regions that could legitimately qualify). Given that, and given the imbalances in the system, the value added of labour is also burdened in nearly all cases. Eo ipso, precious little wealth transfer, particularly generational transfer, is unburdened.Report

          • Murali in reply to NoPublic says:

            Especially in an imperfect world with past injustices, it is horrible to use the Nozickean standard. However, we can justify private property rights by arguing that such rights are precisely what improves the prospects of the worst off.Report

            • Murali in reply to Murali says:

              In other words, with this rawlsian justification, the fact that no current property is unburdened is not a relevant consideration. All that matters is how we move from here, and what property regimes would benefit the worst off the most over their lifetime.

              That means the only possibly relevent consideration is current discrimination.

              Moreover, not all methods of correcting for existing discrimination and privelege are built equally. That there is current discrimination and privelege does not imply that any method for correcting that is premissibleReport

      • The numbers are only higher among minority men. From the Pew Charitable Trusts:

        “Additionally, race is a factor in who falls out of the middle class, but only for men. The report finds that:

        Thirty-eight percent of black men fall out of the middle, compared to 21 percent of white men. In contrast, white, black and Hispanic women are equally likely to drop out of the middle class.”

  3. Jesse Ewiak says:

    I’m perfectly fine with affirmative action for minorities being illegal the moment that affirmative action for large donors to your college becomes illegal.Report

  4. Tod Kelly says:

    Good post, Aaron. And I think I agree with it, mostly. To tie your thought’s into Erik’s from last week, I find that my objection to the death penalty is related to the reality you face in your post. Were the people we put to death not so overwhelmingly minority, I think I’d actually feel more comfortable with the practice, depending on the crime. As it is though, I have a hard time accepting it.Report

  5. Scott says:

    Folks claim they want a color blind society but you won’t have one if you keep relying on discrimination to get minorities into college. Folks deride Bush for getting into college via money not merit but think it’s great when a minority gets in on race not merit. Meanwhile the losers are middle class whites that don’t have money or race and have to rely on merit alone.Report

    • Kim in reply to Scott says:

      … this is an idiotic post.
      Clearly the losers are White Trash folk (specifically hillbillies, inbred or not).
      And obama’s on the record as wanting means-tested affirmative action, which I also support.Report

      • North in reply to Kim says:

        Kim, you realize that your entire second sentence is pretty much pure undiluted racism yes?Report

        • Kim in reply to North says:

          no. I don’t. Characterizing a culture as supportive of incest is not racist, so long as the evidence is on your side. That said, I was using such a characterization as tongue-in-cheek. Is calling someone White Trash really offensive? If so, I apologize to anyone I’ve offended, and would like to note that I do have relatives in those partsReport

          • North in reply to Kim says:

            Just thought I’d throw the thought out there. Those who’d crusade against racism must be wary of its various forms. Staring into the abyss and all that.Report

            • Kim in reply to North says:

              *nods* I’d rather not say that I’m not racist, cause I grew up in a racist society, and I haven’t unlearned all the tricks. But the trick is remaining aware of when you’re generalizing, and when you’re stereotyping, among other things. [you’d have been on better ground dinging me about junk food/blacks I made on a different thread.]Report

  6. Kim says:

    Why not talk about the FBI’s program of infiltrating Quaker and Menonnite groups? You know, the pacifists??? And then deliberately trying to sabotage those groups….Report

  7. North says:

    I have a hard time accepting that affirmative action really serves much use either in terms of social justice, practical service or principal.
    On the social justice side of things everything I’ve heard and read suggests that affirmative action does little to nothing to help low privilege minorities while it is a boon to high privilege minorities (at first at least) and a ban to low privilege whites and Asians.

    As a practical matter it seems to harm even the wealthy immigrant and black students it purports to help by letting in less qualified applicants. The higher minority dropout, burnout and flunk-out rates seem to paint a grim picture of this. Additionally this paints minorities into a terrible corner where the unsuccessful are despised while the successful are assumed to be undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative action.

    Finally, on principal I don’t think the premises of affirmative action hold well any more. Perhaps it cracked the doors open once when institutional racism was entrenched in the halls of power but I am skeptical that such institutional racism endures. I can certainly feel sympathy to the argument that affirmative action addresses legacies of racism from the past but even here I don’t think it’s a productive or effective tool and there are undoubtedly better ones in the box. My biggest problem with it is that I’ve not run into a proponent of affirmative action yet who could define any empirics for me; how will we know when this program has served its purpose? How do we know if it’s working well? When can it be ended?Report

    • Kim in reply to North says:

      North, when there is no longer a wealth disparity between blacks and whites, it’s a good time to end the program. or make it meanstested, which most blacks would favor (as aware as they are of middle-class folks taking advantage of something meant for the poor).Report

    • Creon Critic in reply to North says:

      I am skeptical that such institutional racism endures.

      I first came across this study at the Sociological Images blog, but their site appears to be down at the moment. So Devah Pager’s work via CNN,

      Racial disparities have been documented in many contexts, but here, comparing the two job applicants side by side, we are confronted with a troubling reality: Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.

      The young black men posing as job applicants in this study were bright college kids, models of discipline and hard work; and yet, even in this best case scenario, these applicants were routinely overlooked simply on the basis of the color of their skin. The results of this study suggest that black men must work at least twice as hard as equally qualified whites simply to overcome the stigma of their skin color.


      • North in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Hmm indeed Creon, perhaps a better way to say it is that I’m skeptical that conscious institutional racism persists. Unconscious institutional racism, on the other hand, would not be effectively impacted by affirmative action programs; in fact I’d imagine such programs would tend to reinforce the trend by making people not think about it as much. Also this study seems to be talking about private hiring which would be somewhat irrelevant to the affirmative action.Report

        • Creon Critic in reply to North says:

          I think the study is symptomatic of a broader, ongoing problem in society. I commend sociologists for getting at phenomena that are really difficult to study definitively. Very few are going to answer in a poll, “I’m prejudiced against groups A, B, and C.” Racism is stigmatized, and that’s not small feat, but still continues. Whether conscious racism or unconscious racism, the lived realities for minority communities remain the same, fewer opportunities. Frankly, I don’t think three to four hundred years of state sanctioned racism are dismantled in five decades. By the way, I take your point about giving greater consideration to a wide variety of socioeconomic factors that prevent individuals from accessing opportunities. But race still matters in America, it matters in a way that mean affirmative action should continue IMHO.Report

          • North in reply to Creon Critic says:

            Perhaps Creon, but at what point does the prescribed cure become a (or the) sustaining factor in the attitudes it claims to mitigate?
            As you’ve noted we’ve successfully stigmatized overt racism. Having achieved that as long as we are vigilant in not allowing that stigma to slip then the earth is salted for the seeds of racism as it becomes increasingly difficult for racist attitudes to transmit from one generation to another. Assuming that there is no actual moral or factual merit to racist assertions (as I do) then racist attitudes are a dead letter and nothing more remains to be done but to maintain the pressure and let time sweep the attitudes away with the passage of generations.Report

  8. Frank in midtown says:

    Meritocracy is where it is at, we just have to make some allowances for non-merit advantages such as: high standards of living from birth, inter vivos gifts (gifts between the living) such as infusions of cash and property bestowed by parents on their children at critical junctures in the life course (going to college, getting married, buying a home, having children, starting a business, etc.), insulation from downward mobility (family safety nets which prevent children from skidding in times of personal crises, setbacks, or as the result of personal failures), access to educational opportunities as well as other opportunities to acquire personal merit or to have merit identified and cultivated, better health care and consequently longer and healthier lives (which increases earning power and the ability to accumulate assets during the life course). So it’s “All people are created equal” but the rich kids get all the breaks.Report

  9. There are many complexities associated with affirmative action programs and policies. However, one issue which we continually ignore, as is the case with most government related programs and initiatives, is whether it is effective in addressing past wrongs. Think about this: How many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs have actually shared their good fortune with other members of their particular ethnic group, as opposed to using their increased opportunities and wealth to distance themselves from the masses of minority citizens?Report