Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is Affirmative Action a Social Injustice?

Can you cure injustice with injustice? If one group has suffered the injustice of discrimination can you cure it by instituting an equal and opposite injustice that favors the group?

If the system is supposedly rigged to favor one group can the problem be solved by rigging the system to favor another group?

If one group systematically outperforms another group does that necessarily mean that the one group has received preferential treatment?

In a just world would the composition of the student body in the best American universities correspond to the composition of the nation as a whole? If it did not, would that mean that the university had discriminated?

It is one thing to say that everyone should be judged by the same standards. But, if some groups consistently outperform others does that count as evidence of discrimination?

Equal opportunity is one thing. Equal outcomes, quite another.

If members of one group are not held to the same standards as members of other groups, aren’t they being told that they are not as good as the others?

Would it not be better to say that they should adopt the habits of the group that does better and learn to work harder and longer?

If we say that a poor score by a child in one group is worth as much as an excellent score by a child from another group, aren’t we telling the disadvantaged child that he can do no better?

Are we preparing him to compete in the real world or are we preparing him to think that every time someone does better than he does the cause must be discrimination?

Nowadays Asian students outperform all other groups in standardized tests. Is that a sign of white privilege?

If high-scoring Asians are more often rejected by major universities because of a quota system, does that represented social injustice?

If a far less qualified candidate for university admissions is accepted over a far more qualified candidate on the basis of skin color, has the more qualified candidate suffered discrimination?

These questions are again before the Supreme Court. Rejected University of Texas at Austin applicant Abigail Fisher has sued the university because it accepted students who were less qualified than she, based primarily on their race.

As always happens, the battle lines have been drawn. Significantly, The Economist, which leans left editorially, has called for the end to the racial discrimination called affirmative action.

The arguments are no exactly new, but, coming from The Economist they are sure to have an impact.

It concludes:

Universities that want to improve their selection procedures by identifying talented people (of any colour or creed) from disadvantaged backgrounds should be encouraged. But selection on the basis of race is neither a fair nor an efficient way of doing so. Affirmative action replaced old injustices with new ones: it divides society rather than unites it. Governments should tackle disadvantage directly, without reference to race. If a school is bad, fix it. If there are barriers to opportunity, remove them. And if Barack Obama’s daughters apply to a university, judge them on their academic prowess, not the colour of their skin.

The magazine also offers a good capsule summary of a complex issue:

Many of these policies were put in place with the best of intentions: to atone for past injustices and ameliorate their legacy. No one can deny that, for example, blacks in America or dalits in India (members of the caste once branded “untouchable”) have suffered grievous wrongs, and continue to suffer discrimination. Favouring members of these groups seems like a quick and effective way of making society fairer.

Most of these groups have made great progress. But establishing how much credit affirmative action can take is hard, when growth also brings progress and some of the good—for example the confidence-boosting effect of creating prominent role models for a benighted group—is intangible. And it is impossible to know how a targeted group would have got on without this special treatment. Malays are three times richer in Singapore, where they do not get preferences, than in next-door Malaysia, where they do. At the same time, the downside of affirmative action has become all too apparent.

Awarding university places to black students with lower test scores than whites sounds reasonable, given the legacy of segregation. But a study found that at some American universities, black applicants who scored 450 points (out of 1,600) worse than Asians on entrance tests were equally likely to win a place. That is neither fair on Asians, nor an incentive to blacks to study in high school. In their book “Mismatch”, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor produce evidence that suggests affirmative action reduces the number of blacks who qualify as lawyers by placing black students in law schools for which they are ill-prepared, causing many to drop out. Had they attended less demanding schools, they might have graduated.

Equal opportunity is surely a good thing. But, if we believe that we need to respect the outcome of a fair competition, then we need to learn to accept the judgment of the marketplace. The Economist suggests: “But one set of injustices does not excuse another.”

The solution to a rigged market is not another rigged market. If you think it is, you are undermining the principle of the free market by asserting, as a matter of policy, that markets are always rigged.


Sam L. said...

"Governments should tackle disadvantage directly, without reference to race. If a school is bad, fix it."

Easier said than done. If black students do poorly because they go to black schools, and those schools have black teachers and administrators (else it/they would look like plantations with whites in charge), well we must not change that.

n.n said...

Affirmative Action could only have been justified for a single transitional generation, and even then it was incorrectly processed. In fact, all civil rights after the initial reactive movement were incorrectly processed and served to perpetuate and expand civil rights abuses.

Affirmative Action denigrates and even denies individual dignity, thereby sponsoring development of prejudice. It ensures a cycle of dysfunction a al Tutsi slaughter Hutu slaughter Tutsi redistributive and retributive change cycle.

The problem follows when a reactive movement becomes an organized movement becomes incorporated for profit, where the business model relies on exploiting differentials and gradients to advance political, economic, and social standing.

The problem in government is when that same model is exploited for expediency, and democratic leverage, which then develops and enforces institutional discrimination.

Anonymous said...

To answer the headline: YES.

The 14th Amendment is a ruse for every federal encroachment on states rights, yet this is plainly ignored when it comes to affirmative action. Equal justice under the law is a key component of American democracy. Equal justice under law is intended to protect people from political injustices, yet is plainly ignored for political ends in cases related to affirmative action.

If affirmative action is to exist, it should be utilized to support upward mobility, not based on immutable characteristics. Just because a candidate is white and poor does not mean they should be hampered in attaining the American dream, because the spot was taken by a black applicant from a wealthy background, claiming status as part of an "aggrieved class."

People who support a progressive income tax system, yet oppose changes to the current regime of affirmative action, are talking out of both sides of their mouths.


Aaron said...

Just before my post I will apologise for its length as this is a part of an assignment i have done for my business ethics course.

Affirmative action is a great way of levelling the playing field for those minorities that have been subjected to years of social injustice and discrimination. The disadvantaged minorities that suffered years of this by all forms of institutions requires policies like this to right the wrongs of past mistreatment. Studies show that college-trained African Americans have much more difficulty than their white counterparts in securing employment (Beauchamp, 2004). Not only that, but college trained whites also have higher entry salaries than minorities.
There are many blogs and articles debating this issue as many white high school students missing out on the college of their dreams are blaming it on affirmative action. However this is not to blame. A calculation of Harvard admissions by Steven Mazie (2013) showed ‘that eliminating race-conscious admissions would have improved a white applicant's chances by—at most—1.2 percent.’ So is this really a high level of discrimination against whites? I don’t believe so, if anything it shows that Harvard’s admissions are close to that of the nations’ composition.
So for the question of if a far less qualified candidate is accepted over a far more qualified one because of race, is this discrimination? The answer is no because the position that the higher qualified applicant is going for is not the same as the less qualified applicant. An analogy for this situation published in an article by Thomas Kane compared the likeness of a handicapped parking space. The spot is off limits to the majority of motorists but the sight of a free park may frustrate some drivers especially when the car park is full. The same can be said for university admissions. The handicap space in this analogy is a spot reserved for someone that qualifies under affirmative action policies, not the majority, so they should not feel aggrieved that they missed out on that spot as it was never really available to them.

It’s easy to say that the underperforming group should adopt the habits of the group that does better. Often underperforming students attend poorer schools that may not have the best facilities to help them succeed. They are also less likely to have good mentors to help them achieve that higher level. But a student of non-privileged background that attends a poorer school but excels at that school shows more promise and determination than a student that performs averagely at a better school. They have a will to get a better life for themselves and are putting in the work to get there. That drive to succeed is a great quality that cannot be taught in schools, it is also a great trait to have when seeking employment.

Aaron said...

The second part to my post:

I do agree that high performing Asian-Americans should not miss out due to quota systems against them though. Affirmative action should only be used to help minorities that have been discriminated against greatly in the past. This is instead limiting a minority that although have not been mistreated historically are still outperforming the majority that have been admitted. This is discrimination and Asian-Americans should be included in the majority of applicants. Not limited to the places reserved for minorities that need the advantage of affirmative action policies. Alternatively once the quota is filled the remainder should be able to compete for spots with the remaining majority.
Affirmative action should not be used in place of the basic requirements though. No applicant should be hired or enrolled on the basis of affirmative action that does not meet the required qualifications or merit. This is a set up for failure and also gives the applicant a false sense of hope. So to answer the question about holding groups to the same standard, all university applicants should still meet the required standards of all students. If they meet the standard they are just as good as the others.

Affirmative action will not be needed forever, and it is a quick fix to right the wrongs of the past. Eventually it should be abolished but only when the social injustices of the past have been righted and true equal opportunity exists for all. It does mention that some progress has been made without knowing how much of that progress can be credited to affirmative action. But by ridding the system of it that progress will be slowed dramatically and true equal opportunity for everyone regardless of race, sex or religion will take even longer to be achieved.