On Affirmative Action

First of all, shame on the New York Times. Again.

The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.

[. . .]

The document does not explicitly identify whom the Justice Department considers at risk of discrimination because of affirmative action admissions policies. But the phrasing it uses, “intentional race-based discrimination,” cuts to the heart of programs designed to bring more minority students to university campuses. [emphasis mine]

The NYT makes this about anti-white discrimination. The DoJ document only says that affirmative action causes certain groups to fare worse in college admissions than they should. This is true, even more so of East and South Asians than of whites.

Anyway, I’m not here to bash the NYT. I’m here to talk about affirmative action. I think the policy is a bad idea, but that there are more convincing ways to argue for it than others. It depends what justification for the policy is given.

Justification 1: Diversity

In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013), the Court concluded that discrimination in college admissions on the basis of race is acceptable when it secures the educational benefits of having a diverse student body. This is a stupid argument (courtesy of Justice Kennedy, of course). I don’t think there are substantial educational benefits to learning in proximity to people of a different skin color any more than there are substantial educational benefits to being only around people of one’s own race. And even if such benefits did exist, it still wouldn’t justify discrimination. Suppose one could demonstrate that segregated schools uniformly perform better. Does this justify de jure segregation? Of course not! Either discrimination is okay or it isn’t. Guess what? It isn’t.

Justification 2: Accounting for “Privilege”

Don’t be alarmed by the use of scare quotes around “privilege.” I’m not here to tell you that the concept of privilege is bogus. What I will say is that it is usually overstated. Progressives would have you believe that all of society is systematically biased against minorities in subtle, unconscious ways (e.g. the SAT is racist, which is why black test-takers don’t score as well as white test-takers do, on average). As a result, every person who is part of a marginalized group needs a little boost in order for there to truly be equal opportunity.

This, too, is ridiculous. While racism is by no means a thing of the past, the idea that we live in a systematically racist society is nonsense (unless you’re talking about anti-Asian bias in college admissions). Important concepts to progressives like unconscious racial bias have little to no scientific support. I believe that the concept of privilege, if it is to be useful, should pertain to the persisting effects of past overt racial discrimination, rather than to the effects of current unconscious bias (I consider this to be a better explanation of the racial disparity in SAT scores: past discrimination -> poorer economic and educational opportunities -> entrenched poverty -> poor SAT scores). And the appropriate remedies for these two kinds of harm are different.

Justification 3: Rectifying Past Wrongs

I hint at this a little bit at the end of the last section. Obviously, there have been egregious injustices in our history. There still are today,  but they are far rarer than they once were. When discrimination of this sort takes place, justice demands that there be restitution. People should be given what is rightfully theirs. Hence affirmative action?

The difficulty of this approach (which I think is nevertheless the only reasonable one) is that many of the injustices happened long in the past, and the initial victims are long dead. It is often impossible to determine what might constitute an appropriate remedy. There are just a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, if we can conclusively prove that a black family was run off of their land, and if we can trace that family to a currently living family, then that land should be returned to them. But if your father was deprived of an educational opportunity because of his race, to what compensation are you entitled? Should you be let into Harvard just because he should have been? What if you’re not as smart as he is? What if you don’t want to go to Harvard?

I think that, rather than modifying our admissions standards to give certain ethnic groups a leg up, we should give those descended from victims of egregious injustices* compensation in another form: tuition. Why boost people into schools that they might not be qualified for, saddle them with debt, and then send them away with diplomas that may not get them jobs? A much better way to help victimized black Americans accumulate wealth and human capital would be to heavily subsidize their tuition payments, provided that they get in based on the same standards as everyone else. This is just one idea, but I think it’s better than modifying admissions standards for different racial groups.

*Important note: not all black Americans are victims of egregious racial injustices like slavery and Jim Crow, because some black Americans are more recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Nigerian-American households actually out-earn white American households.


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