Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Affirmative Action Elaboration

Supernatural Rabbit Scribe raises some interesting issues in the comments to a post below, and I want to flesh out some ideas. It's not really fair that I get unlimited space to respond, and he has to mess with a stupid character limit, but then again, life is not fair. Scribe asks:

"Furthermore, doesn't it sort of stick in your craw to say, 'Well, yes, there's an ongoing history of evil here ranging from murder, rape, and slavery to economic and social marginalization. Sadly, though, there's nothing we can do about it without violating abstract principles of equity and taking the risk that some white guy might move into middle management eighteen months later than his merits would have dictated, so suck it up.'"

If that were the basis of my argument, I'm sure it would stick in my craw. Frankly, I'm not the least bit concerned with the fate of your hypothetical white middle manager because as I said above, life's not fair. If the guy is qualified, he can suck it up, and will eventually get his due. Consider for a moment that Paris Hilton is not qualified to leave her house without a paper bag over her head - and yet she's a celebrity. Can there be a more striking proof of injustice in this world? But I'm not about to sue over it.

My argument, rather, runs something like this. The best way to remedy past racial injustice is to empower the victims of that injustice to advance socially. Proponents of affirmative action argue that putting more blacks into high-paying jobs will accomplish that goal. I disagree. Giving Paris Hilton a lot of unearned money didn't make her talented or attractive, and it certainly hasn't earned her any respect. She has no power beyond the ephemeral power which comes from cash. No, affirmative action does empower the exploited because other people with power force blacks into jobs. The power remains with the whites who put them there.

Power comes from knowledge and skill. An educated person can determine his or her own fate, without relying on a patron. Education reform, then, can accomplish things that hiring and promotion quotas never possibly could. Fix the schools, and the rest of the system must inevitable reform for the better.

In my opinion, there is another crucial step, and to a degree it means throwing a bone to affirmative action proponents. The fact of the matter is that fewer blacks than whites can afford to go to Harvard. It's a simple reality of present economic distribution. And it's a reality I think we have a moral obligation to try to remedy. But I think affirmative action, as presently argued, is a very poor way to do that.

Consider this approach: suppose Sobek University is reviewing applications for admission for Fall of 2005. Suppose that the applications do not indicate race at all, but that they do indicate something about socio-economic circumstances. And suppose that it is Sobek U. policy to admit a certain percentage of students from very poor socio-economic circumstances. Keeping in mind that the applications are color-blind, I think statistically we can assume that a large number of those who will benefit from that policy will be black. And why is that? Because that's what America looks like these days. Blacks are poorer than whites. They live in worse neighborhoods. They are less likely to be raised in two-family homes. Their elementary schools are more likely to suck. I don't intend any of the foregoing as a criticism of blacks, only a recognition of present reality.

If my policy of admitting poor students disparately benefits blacks, it is nevertheless not racist, because race is not directly a factor in admissions. Race is only an incidental aspect of a color-blind admissions policy. And that policy resolves an issue that plagues affirmative action advocates: when do you stop? Under my admissions policy, as blacks improve their socio-economic conditions post-graduation the percentage of blacks who benefit from my admissions policy will be reduced compared to other ethnic groups. Aboslutely no one ever benefits because of the color of their skin, but the historical effects that tend to inhere in their skin will redound indirectly to their benefit until those historical effects are remedied.

In conclusion, I am not opposed to affirmative action because it might hurt white people. My opposition is based on several factors. First, I don't think it genuinely empowers anyone. Second, I don't think fighting racism by perpetuating racial tension is inherently foolish. Third, I believe that social justice requires all - Democrats and Republicans - to work to correct past and present racial injustice. Finally, I believe there is a color-blind means of doing this more effectively than present affirmative action programs allow.