Monday, January 15, 2007

The problem with affirmative action

I suppose this is a relevant post for today, being MLK day and all.

Affirmative action has been in the news a bit lately, with the new affirmative action ban in Michigan. Frankly, though, nobody should be surprised that affirmative action remains in the news. It will always remain an issue as long as it is done the way it is done because - as it has been implemented - it is fundamentally self-contradictory.

I should be very clear up front that I think that the goal of affirmative action is both noble and necessary. The legacy of institutional racism from slavery through Jim Crow is clearly still being felt even several generations after the most notorious institutional repression has been erased.

I should also be clear that I think it is not the idea of affirmative action that is flawed, but rather how it has historically been implemented that is broken, and in fact would suggest that alternative approaches are feasible.

The goal of the civil rights movement was to achieve a colorblind society - something that it has, fortunately, been largely successful at. (Not entirely of course, but overt racism is certainly no longer socially acceptable and not only have institutional barriers been removed, but protections have been enshrined in the law. But I digress...) The goal of affirmative action was to make up for the effects of past repression. But herein lies the internal contradiction: in order to make up for past wrongs, many affirmative action programs end up being quite color-sensitive - the opposite of the very colorblind ideal that gave root to the cause of affirmative action!

Furthermore, because affirmative action has largely been implemented in zero-sum games such as college admission, helping a minority because they are a minority comes at the expense of someone else who is not a minority. This, of course, is the issue that most conservative opponents of affirmative action decry - both because it is a form of reverse-discrimination (how can that possibly be morally acceptable if discrimination based on color is unacceptable?) and because it effectively punishes this generation for the sins of prior generations - something that western society has for a very long time looked down upon. The fact that affirmative action has patently noble goals blinds many of its advocates to the very real fact that - as implemented - most affirmative action has a necessary side effect of embracing the very evils to which it aspires to provide redress!

I mentioned "zero-sum" above, and I think that is the crux of the problem: giving preference to one person comes at the expense of another. Remove that and I think the controversy around affirmative action goes away. After all, there are many sports scholarships and nobody decries the fact that non-athletic students do not have access to these scholarships. Nor should they: failure to win a sports scholarship doesn't bar you from attending a school (though of course, economically, it may make it more difficult), and there are other scholarships or student loans available.

There is yet a third argument raised by opponents of affirmative action: that it provides opportunities to people who are not qualified to take advantage of those opportunities. Sadly, there is some merit to this objection, even if it is not actually happening in practice, it could. In my opinion, affirmative action done correctly focuses on the supply-side of the equation - expanding the pool of qualified minority applicants for jobs, school admissions, and such - rather than the output side of the equation (how many minorities get hired or accepted). In these pools, consumption from the pool can (and should!) be strictly merit-based. Of course, to fill the pool, you have to feed the pipeline at the other end. You can have a merit-based job applicant pool, but to ensure that minorities have the same opportunities, you have to get more of them through school. And getting more of them into school means reserving more spots for them ("quotas", or at the very least displacing other qualified candidates since school size makes this a zero-sum situation), or lowering standards so that you can accept students that you would not have otherwise accepted.

Neither of these are attractive approaches, but I think there is a third option: that feeding the pipe means consuming from a secondary pool of applicants, and that if you can push the problem down a level. The job applicant pool is fed by the output of our universities. Affirmative action today tries to directly fix the output of our universities by force-fitting more minorities into them, with the problems above. But viewed as a supply chain problem, one realizes that the output of the universities is a result of the applicant pool from which the university itself consumes. Get more qualified minorities into that applicant pool, and you'll see more qualified minorities coming out. And how do you get more minorities into that applicant pool? Get more of them successfully through high school. And so on.

In other words, remove the zero-sum nature of the problem. Smart affirmative action programs would start in grade school to ensure that minority kids are getting a great education and any additional help that they need to succeed. This doesn't come at the expense of the education of a middle-class white kid - it's analogous to the sports scholarship. Then you get a lot more minority kids coming out of grade school ready for high school. Do the same thing in high school, and you see a lot more qualified applicants for college. If you have more qualified applicants from all races, there is no need to use race as a deciding factor where the zero-sum bottlenecks apply: you can do admissions based on merit and still find yourself having proportional representation in your student body.

While there are fortunately many programs that seek to help minority kids early in their educational career, this is sadly not where most affirmative action advocates focus. But it's really the crux of the problem - otherwise, you're treating the symptom rather than the cause, and doing it in a morally problematic manner at that.

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