The Future of Affirmative Action

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75 Responses

  1. Avatar 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

    • Avatar 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

      • Avatar Aaron 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

        • Avatar Kim 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

          • Avatar Aaron 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

      • Avatar Aaron 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

        • Avatar Murali 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

    • Avatar Kim 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

      • Avatar Murali 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

        • Avatar Kim 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

    • Avatar NoPublic says:

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

      [citation needed]Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke 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

    • Avatar Kim 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

      • Avatar Murali 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

        • Avatar Kim 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

        • Avatar NoPublic 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

          • Avatar Murali 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

            • Avatar 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.”

        • Avatar Kim says:

          …teach me to skim!
          Now, the bonus question: is it culture, or white privilege? Certainly whites find black women less intimidating, and hispanic women have less “macho issues” about working for women (yes, I can cite this from my anthro class).Report

          • I would say it’s nearly 100% cultural. The example I would give is schools with high minority populations. Studies show that race plays almost no perceivable factor in educational achievement up to the high school level. Once kids reach high school race DOES become a predictor of achievement, with black men being the group that falls back the fastest.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              drop me a link? are we still seeing the gender disparities for younger children?Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              This is not true. The achievement gap shows up as early as pre-school, and there are no mediators in any combination that do away with the effect of race at any level. Unless you’ve seen new data that I haven’t (which I highly doubt).Report

              • Chris – look at free lunch statistics and then look at race statistics. Income level, not race, is the greatest indicator of poor achievement.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                … so can we just go with a means-tested affirmative action, as the best plan, and work for that? Obama’s even in favor of it, or so I hear…Report

              • Avatar Scott says:


                So Barry is in favor of it, so what? I prefer actions not words so get back to me when he does it.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                No, Mike, it’s not! The data is very clear on this: even controlling for parental income, the gap is still there from pre-school.Report

              • Nonsense! My wife is a social worker in our school system. The statistics she sees relating to student problems (poor attendance, poor grades, behavior issues) match up almost exactly with the same data they have on free lunch programs.

                Additionally, look at what has gone on in NC where they did away with race-based busing and moved to socio-economic busing. Same improvements. Here in Louisville, we’ve done the same thing with similar results. Believe me, poor whites are just as shitty parents as poor blacks.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Dude, I’m sure your wife’s experience is exactly as you describe it, but the data doesn’t lie. That’s why in my first comment I said there are no mediators that remove the gap. There has been a ton of research on this. If you want to see the stats, I’ll be happy to post them.

                Do you know how regression works?Report

              • So let me ask you this then: If you’re saying that race, not income, is the determining factor for academic success – then what’s your explanations for the variance between whites and blacks of equal incomes? Would you chalk it up to cultural differences and if so, what are they?Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I’d chalk it up to wealth differences, due to institutionalized racism propagating over generational boundaries.
                Well, it’s at least part.
                blacks make something like 20% less than whites. But they have about 10% of an average white person’s wealth. Lack of wealth inhibits finding better jobs, increases stress, etc etc.

                no need to use culture at all.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Mike, you’re misunderstanding me, which is my fault. I’m not saying race is the determining factor. I’m saying it is a factor. It remains a factor even after you remove the influence of other factors statistically. That is, research has shown that parental income has an effect, parental involvement has an affect, gender has an effect, peer group has an effect, location has an effect, and several other factors as well, but even taking these things into account (loosely, removing the variance that these factors account for), race still has an effect. Does that make sense? If not, I’ll try a different explanatory route.Report

              • Chris – We may have been talking past each other. You will note that I said (emphasis mine): “Income level, not race, is the greatest indicator of poor achievement.

                I acknowledge race IS a factor but I don’t believe it is the prime or even secondary. The problem is that in most locales poverty dovetails with race and so the latter is assumed to be causal when it’s really more the former.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Ah, OK. Income is the biggest factor, but race is a fairly large one. What’s more, race actually mediates the effect of income. That is, the effect of income is stronger among black children than it is among white children (I don’t know about other races/ethnicities).Report

              • So the question begs (and this circles back to Kain’s original post)…Why IS race a factor? Are there cultural deficiencies within minority communities or is it institutionalized racism?Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                I figure it’s a bit of both…
                Take someone who gets a lot of money and throws a huge party, inviting all his friends, and then is broke again.
                To a WASPy middle class person, this seems remarkably maladaptive.
                But to a lower-class person, their friends are people they rely on, and are more precious than money — the party seems (and probably is) an adaptive thing.
                It’s true, though, that a poor person who relies on friends is less likely to remove themselves from taht support network.Report

  3. Avatar 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. Avatar 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. Avatar 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

    • Avatar Kim 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

      • Avatar North says:

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

        • Avatar Kim 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

          • Avatar North 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

            • Avatar Kim 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. Avatar 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. Avatar 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

    • Avatar Kim 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

    • Avatar Creon Critic 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.


      • Avatar North 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

        • Avatar Creon Critic 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

          • Avatar North 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. Avatar 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