Affirmative Action – Too Little or Too Much?

07 May 2016

This week, our topic is Affirmative Action,  We thought we’d focus on the question whether affirmative is  too little, or too much,  “Too little or too much what?”  you ask.   Does it bring about too little racial justice – because it doesn’t go far enough?  Or does it bring about too much racial resentment – because it goes way too far?     I fear that the correct answer may be that it’s a little bit of both.   Affirmative action doesn’t begin to be a fully adequate instrument for achieving racial justice but, nonetheless, it generates way more racial resentment than it deserves to.

It  wasn’t always so,    As it was originally conceived, it  was designed to overcome the effects of past racial discrimination, when blacks were too often told that they need not apply.  It was meant to supplement and make real the requirements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in one fell swoop.   But even if the law says, “Henceforth, there shall be no further discrimination,”  you can’t undo the lingering effects of decades and decades of past racial injustice by the mere stroke of a pen.  That’s where affirmation action came in.  

Many people now think of a affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination, as a system in which whites and blacks are not held to the same standards, in which a less qualified black person can be hired or admitted over a more qualified white person – all in the name of racial diversity,  And they complain that whatever the racial sins of the past,  two racial wrongs don't make a racial right.   

But reverse discrimination was never the idea!  The point was to level the playing field.   Institutions had to “act affirmatively” to ensure that their candidate pools included previously excluded minorities.  The idea was to actively seek them out, to openly welcome them, and to allow them to compete on fair and equal terms with whites.  This idea has, I think, simply become part of our employment and admissions DNA.   Nobody would think of going back to the old days, when you had to be part of a good old boys club to get a job or a spot in a prestigious university.  

But there is no denying that affirmative action has evolved considerably from its initial beginnings.  What started out as a tool for ameliorating the effects of past discrimination has become more of a tool for increasing diversity, at least somewhat independent of explicit discrimination.  In its earliest form,  affirmative action was more e focused on fair and open processes and making sure that they are not infected with bias.   In its latter form, it has tended to focus on actual results.   It’s this more recent approach to affirmative action, I think, that causes all the political and emotional turmoil over affirmative action.   It’s certainly harder to justify.   And the resistance and resentment it sometimes engenders is hardly surprising, I’d say.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking diversity.    Diversity is a very good thing.  If we’re given two equally qualified candidates, one of whom adds diversity and the other doesn’t, of course, we should choose the candidate that adds some diversity. But how far should we take this reasoning?  Should diversity only be used to break ties?   Or should it diversity be regarded as a positive qualification, all on its own.   If so, how many points should you get just for being black or being a woman.  Unfortunately,  start thinking this way,  and you’ll quickly get to something that goes against the idea of equality and starts to sound a little like reverse discrimination.   The problem is that there seems to be a degree of tension between diversity and merit.  If there wasn’t we could just select on the basis of merit and let the diversity take care of itself.   But clearly we can't do that – or at least the practice of Affirmative Action seems to presume that we can’t.

Perhaps there is another way to look at it though.  Perhaps we should think of affirmative action against the backdrop of widespread implicit bias.  Perhaps it can help us guard against such biases.   Suppose we do a little experiment.  We give two hiring committee, two almost identical resumes – with just one teeny, tiny inconsequential difference between them.   One has a recognizably Anglo-sounding name – say Jason.   The other has a recognizably African American sounding name – say Jamal.    Shouldn’t matter, should it?   What’s in a name after all?  But by now, they dirty little secret about implicit bias is out.     In set up after set up like this,  it turns out that the candidate with the black sounding name will be judged to be less qualified than the candidate with the Anglo sounding name.  Same for female names.  Same for Hispanic names.

As far as I konw, nobody has yet tried to justify Affirimative Action on the grounds that it would help protect us from the effects of implicit bias.   But you can see how such an argument might go.   People used to hope that if we just had fair procedures and standards and actively sought out excluded people, everything would eventually be alright.  We might not even need affirmative action anymore.  But the fact of widespread implicit bias suggest that we that we can never overcome discrimination, no matter how hard we try.   The point isn't so much that people are bound to prefer their own kind.   The point is rather that even when we try to be objective and fair minded, the  phenomenon of implicit bias suggest that we may be bound to fail.   We can never really be sure that we aren’t being controlled by our biases or that we are honestly applying fair, equitable, and objective standards. 

But if we can’t ever really trust our judgements of merit where does that leave us?   With endless debates, lawsuits, and racial division?  That’s how you get California deciding minority students can’t even be subjected to IQ testing out of fear that they are unintentionally discriminatory.   I'm not at all confident that  Affirmative Action  really would help us to combat implicit bias.  But maybe it's worth a try.   Nothing else seems to be working.  But hey,   nobody ever promised that achieving true racial justice was going to be easy.  

 

 
 
 

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