Affirmative Action and Philosophy vs. Reality
In a post I did on religion a while back, I talked about the various reasons I tend to distrust using Philosophy as a tool to solve disagreements about public policy. While I appreciate the thinking skills it teaches when practiced in an academic setting, I described my problems using it to tackle day-to-day issues thus:
“I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of the entire business of capital “P” Philosophy, and at different times in my life have found it pretentious, distracting, purposefully exclusionary, and a linguistic tool to reshape reality when your belief system is proven to be wrong. Mostly though, my problem with Philosophy is its reliance on combat rather than collaboration.”
I know that this view of Philosophy is not overly popular at this site. (Of all the contributors, I think I may be the only one that does not list “philosophy” of some sort as a hobby in their bio.)
My problem with using Philosophy to tackle policy issues was driven home this morning in a post by Tim on California’s Prop 209. Prop 209, passed through the initiative process, allows the State school system to use affirmative action as a tool in their admissions process for both undergraduate and graduate programs.
I will say from the outset that this is a issue that I don’t think has a black and white answer (no pun intended). Where are we, really, when it comes to racism and sexism in our country? It’s hard to get a bead on it. On the one hand, I was pretty sure in early 2008 that we had not come far enough to overwhelmingly elect an African American to the highest office in the land. On the other, I was pretty sure in late 2008 that we had come far enough that the assumption that he must have been born in Kenya and sent to destroy our way of life by those sneaky Africans would be universally laughed at. So what do I know?
For all of our hand-wringing about college admissions, I must confess I am not convinced it matters much – at least in the long run. If you graduate from Stanford as opposed to UC Santa Barbara, might you get a slightly better paying job out of college? Maybe, sure. In 10 years, will your level of success be directly attributed to the name of your alma mater, as opposed to your actual career achievements? Not really.
That being said, I think the passage of Prop 209 is a good reason to have a very real conversation about where we are today on those racism and sexism scales, and to what degree affirmative action is needed, helpful, or even morally justified. What I’m pretty sure we don’t need to discuss is this:
“Even in circles in which it is fashionable to be provocative, we never hear the question “How has the abolition of slavery worked?” We do not hear that question, I suspect, because people sense that the rightness or wrongness of ending slavery is wholly unaffected in principle by the extended consequences of that measure—whether the former slaves happened to prosper or grow poorer in their freedom. And yet it is quite common for people to ask whether policies of “reverse discrimination” or “busing for racial balance” have worked. . . .”
For me, this is pretty much where the “philosophical-arguments-use-linguistic-gymnastics-to-reshape-reality-to-your-side’s-favor” rubber meets the road. Unless I am reading Arkes (and therefore Tim’s) point incorrectly, the wisdom I am supposed to take away is that the act of us as a country saying that you couldn’t exclude black people from living in nice neighborhoods, fund all black schools at lower levels, or have collusion by employers that blacks couldn’t be hired except for the most menial tasks (at wages less than their white counterparts) was the moral equivalent of locking white people up in chains, shipping them off to another country, and keeping them in bondage. That either Arkes or Tim might actually believe this seems laughably dubious, but the use of philosophical debate techniques allows them to go there anyway – and go there in a way that seems super smart and at first blush convincing.
Tim even goes one step further, using philosophic argument to “prove” that Prop 209 is a case of “lawmakers [supplanting] the people’s anti-racial discrimination principle expressed in their constitution through an inferior act of lawmaking,” tap-dancing around the part that as an initiative it was not the legislature acting in darkened, smoke-filled rooms that passed the bill, but “the people” themselves.
The inherent problem with Tim’s absolutist argument is that it either ignores over 200 years of history, or it claims that this history did not exist. The problem with doing ignoring that history is that this is a public policy issue, and thus you need everyone at the table to seriously tackle it. Equating affirmative action with slavery will not bring anyone to the table that wasn’t already sitting next to you. I don’t live in Cali so I don’t know what the No-On-Prop 209 campaign was like, but if it tried to rally support with arguments like Arkes’s it’s not surprising that they lost.
I wish that instead of using Philosophy to swing for the fences – vanquishing his enemies with an all-or-nothing supposition – Tim had instead acknowledged the very real need for Affirmative Action in our country’s past – even if he doesn’t see that need now. Which isn’t even to say that Tim’s stance that Prop 209 is bad policy is wrong. He may well be right. But as I grow older, I become more convinced that in order to solve thorny issues like this we don’t need divisive philosophical statements, we need conversations. And conversations start with questions.
The questions I think we should be asking each other, rather than devising philosophical beachheads? Here’s a start:
Where have we come with AA? How far do we still need to go? Who has AA helped, and who has it hurt, and are the degrees of those two equal or not?
For school admissions, what is the purpose of our higher education system? Is it simply a way to get an ultimate academic rank of 21-23 year-olds, or do we want it to be something else – something more? If we choose to go on SAT scores alone, what do we miss when students are invariably sequestered for four years with people from backgrounds just like theirs? If we have diversity as a key component, do we risk placing too small an emphasis on merit? Must we choose one over the other?
These are the questions I think we need to ask our neighbors and ourselves. There aren’t many things I feel confident that I absolutely know on the subject of affirmative action, but I feel confident about this: Most of us aren’t really entirely on one side or the other; and planting a flag aggressively and absolutely on either side of the debate just forces others to do the same – and ultimately just puts off us being able to get anywhere meaningful.