Affirmative Action: Is There a Middle Way?

Affirmative Action: Is There a Middle Way?

Dec. 1 2004 10:55 AM

Affirmative Action: Is There a Middle Way?

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Herb Stein
8:23 a.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       Looking at Proposition 209 raises a question that I address especially to Wood. Why is there this particular list of categories to which or against which there is to be no discrimination--"race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin"? Why not age, veteran status, income, religion (Nation of Islam?), or Scholastic Aptitude Test scores? It is the SATs that I find most puzzling. Why does the state discriminate in favor of people with high SAT scores by giving them large subsidies, in the form of higher education? Why discriminate in favor of people with high aptitudes at all? People with high aptitudes are already better off than people with low aptitudes. And why discriminate in favor of this particular aptitude--scholastic aptitude? How about aptitude for running a gas station or repairing plumbing? That is not a joke. I have heard it seriously proposed that the state should give every high-school graduate a sum of money that he could use to buy an education of any kind or start a business. This line of thinking is most puzzling to me because I understand that Proposition 209 was largely motivated by discrimination in admissions to the University of California, whereas the existence of the University of California is itself one big discrimination.

Michael Kinsley
9:27 a.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       The moderator's question about the difference, if any, between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on the basis of SAT scores cuts to the heart of the affirmative action debate. Both are characteristics over which we have little or no control. Yet discrimination on the basis of one is outlawed, but the other is thought of as "merit," discrimination on the basis of which is celebrated. Outlawing discrimination against blacks corrects a historic injustice; no similar rationale applies regarding discrimination against whites. The actual connection between SAT scores and "qualifications" for the meritocratic goodies SAT scores deliver is crude at best. On the other hand, as Glenn Loury points out, race itself can sometimes be a very real and legitimate "qualification."
       Herb Stein also writes: "What is discouraging to me is that the persons who seem most determined to end discrimination against whites are not equally determined to improve the education of disadvantaged children of all races." To generalize on this point: Critics of affirmative action like to point out--correctly--that the poorest members of minority groups, who need society's help the most, are the least likely to benefit from affirmative action--that it is mainly a program to benefit middle-class blacks and women. Fair enough. But surely on any list of social harms that need correcting in this country, discrimination against whites ranks below BOTH discrimination against blacks and the problems of poor people of all races. In other words, aren't reverse-discrimination obsessives--whatever the rights and wrongs of their case--guilty of massively misplaced priorities?

Christopher Edley
1:11 p.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       To Michael Kinsley's Tuesday question: It is very clear to me (and to President Clinton) that "rigid numerical straitjackets" and "plus-factor" affirmative action are very different in practice, and in principle. In admissions, a quota means you insist on hitting the number regardless of the consequences to other institutional goals, such as academic preparedness, geographical diversity, income diversity, or the excellence of the orchestra. In government contracting, a quota means you want a set amount of business for the targeted group regardless of contract price, or the predicted quality of performance.
       More flexible approaches mean that the purposes of affirmative action (combating discrimination, promoting excellence through inclusion) are on the table with other valuable purposes, to be compared and traded off against one another, trying to get what's best in the larger scheme of things.
       To put it in moral terms, I believe there are circumstances in which race, ethnicity, or gender do matter and, at this time in our history, ought to matter. But it is very rare, if ever, that these immutable personal characteristics ought to matter most. This reasoning is what Justice Powell, generally a conservative on the court, had in mind in 1978 when his swing opinion in Bakke rejected quotas at the University of California at Davis Medical School, but embraced the more flexible admissions efforts as described to the court by Harvard and other universities.
       A flexible goal can become a straitjacket if it is cheaply, sloppily, administered, or if the incentive for meeting the goal is overwhelming. That only proves, however, that vigilance is necessary, and that supporters of affirmative action must be mindful that its benefits come with some costs that we are morally (and legally) obliged to minimize. This isn't easy. History's the best proof of that.

Christopher Edley
1:27 p.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       Thanks to Jim Lehrer's efforts last night, perhaps there will be some discussion of affirmative action in the campaign. Gore's restatement of the "Mend it, don't end it" policy, and his emphasis on the value of inclusion or diversity, were solid and--like his other campaign comments on the subject--obviously heartfelt. But both the vice president and Mr. Kemp were too quick to change the subject to "economic empowerment."
       Substantively, this is misleading. The nation wants both racial justice and gender justice. It's not either/or. Clinton and Gore do not believe that we will get the former by single-mindedly pursuing the latter; they believe the agendas are complementary. If the reinvented Bob Dole and Jack Kemp believe we can just focus on his economic prescriptions, then their confidence in economic prescriptions surely ranks among the greatest feats of optimism in the history of our nation. (And is inconsistent with GOP policy as practiced since . . . Lincoln.)
       Politically, Kemp's incentive to change the topic is plain: He has the impossible task of minimizing personal embarrassment from his ethically-corrupt-yet-politically-predictable flip-flop on California's Proposition 209. The Clinton-Gore team, by comparison, is unembarrassed about their policy, but constipated with caution: Staying "on" the economic message means taking no risks to lead the nation on racial healing, at least over the next 26 days.
       That caution is a comfort to anti-affirmative action forces in California, and deeply discouraging to many of the president's supporters. Surely one accumulates political capital in order to actually do something?

Herb Stein
3:07 p.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       It seems to me that Loury and Edley are approaching each other from different directions. That is, they are both seeking a flexible, "rule-of-reason," limited kind of affirmative action. The problem is how to get there, especially now. Has previous excessively aggressive application of the idea of affirmative action poisoned the well so that judicial decisions and, probably, legislation like Proposition 209, will stand in the way of even reasonable affirmative action? How to work the way back?
       I am glad that Edley has mentioned the magic word, "Lincoln." Lincoln thought that slavery was a moral abomination. But before the war he tried constantly to assure the slave states that he had no intention of disturbing slavery where it was. He devoted his efforts, including what persuasiveness and political influence he had, to preventing the extension of slavery into new territory. He counted on slavery where it was being on the road to eventual extinction.
       The lesson from Lincoln, I think, is that even highly moral persons have to adapt to circumstances and count costs and benefits. People who want to improve the condition of minorities have a limited claim upon the attention, conscience, resources, and power of the majority. They have to consider carefully how to use that claim most effectively. That is why there is a question about the emphasis to be put on affirmative action as compared with positive efforts to improve the education, employment opportunities, and physical safety of very low-income people, who are disproportionately minorities.
       I do not think that Jack Kemp made a good case for the "economic" approach to the plight of minorities in the debate yesterday. His extremism on this point will pollute the case for the economic approach just as extremism on affirmative action has polluted the case for that. Cutting the capital gains tax is not going to have a beneficial effect in the ghetto, or at least not an effect proportional to its budgetary cost. Neither will Clinton's tax relief. The $500-per-child tax credit will not benefit families whose incomes are too low to expose them to the income tax. The economic approach to improving the lot of the very poor will have to be much more specifically directed to that purpose--in my opinion. But we are not going in that direction, and I wonder whether the history of experience with affirmative action has not contributed to that condition.
       Tomorrow is our last day on the stage. I hope that the other panelists will react to the idea of the "reasonable" affirmative action discussed by Loury and Edley, and to the choice between the affirmative-action approach and the "economic" approach that has come up at several points in this discussion. Of course, any other thoughts and conclusions are welcome.

Glenn Loury
3:10 p.m.  Thursday  10/10/96 

       Concerning the question about how racial discrimination against blacks has changed over time, there can be little doubt that formal wage and hiring disparities between equally skilled blacks and whites have dropped dramatically since 1950. This is a complicated subject; one gets different estimates, depending on which data one uses, and what variables one controls for. But the bottom line is that the younger and more skilled the comparable black and white workers studied are, the more similar their labor market earnings profiles, particularly outside of the South. The wage gap for younger cohorts of employed black and white men with similar characteristics is under 10 percent, and better-educated working black women are often found to earn slightly more than their comparable white female counterparts.
       These findings indicate that discrimination has declined, but they also indicate that preferential affirmative action is not a major factor in the labor market gains which blacks have enjoyed in recent decades. (For, if blacks were being favored, they would be earning significantly more than comparable whites.) Interestingly, one can find both opponents and defenders of preferences claiming that the black middle class owes its existence to preferential affirmative action. But this is plainly false. Far more important have been relative improvements in the quality and quantity of education, interregional migration, enforcement of laws against employment discrimination, and a shift in cultural attitudes leading toward the acceptance of blacks in a wide range of social roles previously proscribed.
       That said, there is growing evidence that younger, unskilled blacks are experiencing labor-market discrimination, especially inner-city black males. Interviews with urban employers in Chicago, for example, have found what is confirmed by studies elsewhere--namely, that many employers view the ghetto-dwelling youths who apply for jobs with deep suspicion. They worry that such youngsters are unreliable, will not accept supervision, are not really interested in working, may be involved in criminal activities, and "have a chip on their shoulders." These concerns are not without foundation in fact, and need not reflect antipathy toward black young men (indeed, a number of the employers interviewed to this effect were themselves blacks.) But, to exclude an individual from an employment opportunity on the basis of a surmise about the average traits of the racial group to which that individual belongs is nevertheless to engage in an illegal racial discrimination. The fact that Mexican immigrant workers may have an easier time than black high-school dropouts finding low-wage employment in Chicago, or in Southern California, is, to some unknowable degree, a reflection of this kind of discrimination. Because the effects of this practice are concentrated among a small portion of the overall black workforce, they are not reflected in aggregate studies of the sort cited above. Some form of pressure on low-wage employers to give these kids a chance to prove themselves, despite the terrible reputation which "their kind" brings to the workplace, can, I think, be justified.
       My overall view is that the vast disparities between the life chances of a black versus a white or Asian youngster born today into a household of modest means in South Central Los Angeles constitutes a serious problem of social injustice. Because of cultural differences, differences in opportunities afforded by the surrounding social environment, and differences in the reactions of societal actors (such as the employers just mentioned), the black youngster faces an objectively greater degree of disadvantage, and that disparity is deeply related to the social fact of race in America. What I mean by "the social fact of race" is captured in patterns of intermarriage (much higher between whites and Asians, and whites and Hispanics, than whites and blacks), patterns of interracial adoption (much less likely to favor black infants), and patterns of residential segregation (much more likely to lead to the isolation of low-income blacks). These elements of social segmentation along racial lines make all the talk about "aid the poor, regardless of race," seem fatuous when set alongside the reality of the lives of many hundreds of thousand of ghetto-dwelling blacks, whose race is most certainly a part of their disadvantage, since it is at the root of their social isolation. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the preferential provision of contracts to black millionaires, or preferential admissions for the sons and daughters of the black middle class, contribute virtually nothing to the alleviation of this problem.
       My bottom line is that the black poverty problem provides almost no support for the practice of racial-preference policies, but it gives the lie to the color-blind absolutist claim that government can dispense social justice without taking note of anybody's race.