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Bruno: Finding Better Ways To Defend Affirmative Action

Affirmative-action_cartoonA 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.

For starters, I think it's a mistake to say, as she does, that because diversity "is a fairly abstract goal that must contend with a host of other, equally compelling goals" it therefore cannot provide adequate justification for affirmative action. Whether a justification is persuasive or not is an empirical question, and the evidence suggests that even if individual people are often skeptical of the virtues of diversity, many large, powerful institutions are not. As the ACLU documents, the military, large corporations, and elite universities all basically agree that diversity is sufficiently worthwhile to justify affirmative action in some form or another. Those groups collectively represent an enormous amount of potential political firepower, and I see no reason to write them off so casually.

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)


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An author from Slate.com makes the argument that diversity in schools simultaneously has the effect that you mention as well as Advances, by bits and pieces, the academic success of those students among the lower socioeconomic status. Presumably their presence among more affluent students motivates them to succeed in ways not felt in homogenously poorer environments.

I am against affirmative action, if only because race is still a factor in it, to the best of my knowledge. If it were purely decided on socioeconomic status, that would be different, but why is race still a qualifier? Doesn’t offering greater support to one race imply that they cannot succeed themselves? Isn’t that inherently racist?

@Sarah - Race still is (and should be) a qualifier because racial discrimination is still all too real. (Esther Quintero gives just a few examples in her post.) Just like being poor makes life more difficult, to the extent that people of color are discriminated against (and they are), that discrimination can make life more difficult. So if it's worth including socioeconomic status in affirmative action, then it's hard to see why we wouldn't also include race.

I don't claim to know the *relative* weight we should give economic status vs. race, but I don't think there's much question that significant racial discrimination still exists such that it puts people of color at social and institutional disadvantages relative to white people like me. Nothing about acknowledging that strikes me as "racist".

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