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.
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.