Bruno: Finding Better Ways To Defend Affirmative Action
A few weeks ago Esther Quintero wrote a piece at Shanker Blog trying to re-frame the justification for affirmative action as being primarily about fairness, saying that "affirmative action is needed, not so much as compensation for historic injustices, but as a sort of ballast, counterbalancing unconscious – but unquestionably still prevalent – current biases and prejudice."
That sounds basically right to me, but the problem with justifying affirmative action primarily in terms of how it helps some people is that affirmative action also inevitably hurts some people who would be better off without it. This just leaves us in the difficult rhetorical position of having to explain why we're OK picking winners and losers in a way that can't help but feel arbitrary to the losers (or potential losers). For that reason I think Esther is too quick to dismiss the possibility of justifying affirmative action as something that contributes to the greater good.
Additionally, though, I think that what Esther frames as an issue of fairness for individuals can be understood just as well, and maybe more persuasively, in terms of the self-interest of schools and employers. As she points out, it's pretty clear that various groups of people tend, on average, to experience social and institutional discrimination that makes success harder to achieve, while other groups of people live life on what John Scalzi calls the "lowest difficulty setting". Yes, this suggests that affirmative action can be a way for society to compensate for those inequalities but, by the same token, it also means that it's perfectly reasonable for schools and employers to want to be able to consider, say, race as a factor in admissions or hiring.
After all, if two applicants - one white and one black - are otherwise identical, and we believe that the black applicant probably had to overcome greater social and institutional challenges due to her race, then it seems plausible to think that a school (or employer) should be more impressed by the black applicant. This is true even if the school's (or employer's) only goal is to recruit the strongest possible individual applicants.
In other words, it's not just that factoring race (or gender, wealth, etc.) into admissions and hiring decisions helps individuals with the relevant background. Rather, affirmative action policies should be understood at least in part as a way for schools, employers, and other institutions to correctly identify the most meritorious applicants. And when we as a society understand merit correctly - as a concept that incorporates not just absolute accomplishments, but also the context-dependent difficulty of achieving them - we all benefit. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)