Affirmative Action: Too Little or Too Much?

Sunday, January 20, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 8, 2016

What is it

Addressing our nation’s history of racial injustice can be a truly backbreaking endeavor. Race-based affirmative action is usually thought of as one such effort, and colleges and universities often use it in their admissions process. However, affirmative action does seem to lower standards for certain under-represented minorities like Blacks and Hispanics. Should we think of affirmative action as patronizing those minorities, or rectifying the injustices they face? Is affirmative action enough to redress racial injustice, or is it simply the best we can do for the time being? John and Ken welcome Glenn Loury from Brown University, author of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality.

Listening Notes

Does affirmative action do too little to rectify racial injustice, or do too much and create racial resentment? Ken shows doubts about affirmative action: if the law doesn’t discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, why should universities? John defends that affirmative action merely sought to extend educational opportunities to those that conventionally could not access them. Ken pushes back that affirmative action has evolved to not only level the playing field, but tip it to the advantage of certain groups. John and Ken digress to a discussion of how implicit bias affects questions of merit. Economist Glenn Loury enters the discussion to help make sense of these questions.

Loury first explains how affirmative action lends itself to be studied by the methods of economics. He goes on justify affirmative action on the grounds that the legitimacy of universities would be threatened without sufficient diversity. Loury provides an example of how the Supreme Court’s legitimacy would have been threatened without at least one black Justice, explaining the appointment of Justice Thomas to replace Justice Marshall. Ken suggests that minorities in the police force may be an even more striking case of the importance of affirmative action.

After a short break, Loury develops his criticism of affirmative action—claiming that it is both patronizing and ironic. John describes his experience implementing affirmative action at UCLA a tool used simply to make sure underrepresented communities had an equal shot at getting in. Loury agrees that this “weak” affirmative action was part of the scheme, but did not get nearly far enough to produce politically correct outcomes. Ken interjects, wondering why such elite universities exist in the first place. As Loury balances the productivity of elitism and the shared enterprise of democracy, Ken pushes against why blacks and other minorities can’t be let into this bastion of elite institutions. John points out the especially pernicious treatment of blacks and Native Americans as a means of justifying affirmative action.

A caller argues that persistent racism and a biased system of evaluating academic success justify affirmative action for him. Loury is not so persuaded, but does concede that overall affirmative action does have a role in universities today. Another caller cites his concern that hiring committees are likely to select candidates to be and look like themselves. Loury shows sympathy to this concern. Ken inquires as to why affirmative action is so widely discussed when it probably helps and hurts so few people in a relatively small way. John chimes in that Asians are likely hurt most by affirmative action. Loury proposes to expand affirmative action to socially disadvantaged whites. He goes on to emphasize the need for equal educational opportunity at a much earlier stage than the university. After another call, Loury ends on a forward-looking note, that we must hope for a color-blind society in which race truly doesn’t matter.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:55): Joined by psychology professor Faye Crosby, Shuka Kalantari summarizes the history of affirmative action, from its conception in the early 60s to the legal battles the practice quickly faced thereafter. Today, nine states no longer use affirmative action.
  • 60 Second Philosopher (seek to 46:30): Ian Shoales reports on the evolution of affirmative action, starting as a measure that afforded minorities opportunities to succeed and slowly becoming an advantage in allowing them to do so. He concludes by putting recent debates like about Black Lives Matter and transgender use of bathrooms into context.

Glenn Loury, Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics, Brown University


Research By

Mohit Mookim

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