For the past several years, the policies that favor certain minority groups at the level of college admissions and public employment, commonly called affirmative action, have been on the back foot. Laws and constitutional amendments in various states, most notably in the liberal stronghold California in 1996, have restricted or banned outright the practice of discrimination on the basis of race, whether favoring the majority ethnic group or a minority. These movements ought to be welcomed by supporters of liberty. Our nation is founded on the principle of equality before the law. It seems inherently unjust to favor one group over another because of the color of their skin or ethnic history. It is doubly unjust that the organization engaging in such practices be the government to which we all pay taxes and from which we are meant to expect equal treatment and consideration.
Despite the strength of the principled opposition, last month Democratic legislators in California embarked on a rearguard effort to restore affirmative action through a partial reversal of the 1996 ban. The proposed law would allow for the restoration of affirmative action to university admissions.
The issue of affirmative action has become deeply knotted up in the American public consciousness. Whenever it is brought up as a policy to be implemented or repealed, passionate champions on both sides come out of the woodwork. Yet more often than not, the debates that arise from these proposals generate far more heat than light. In fact, it is often the case that each side ends up talking past the other, leaving the general public confused as to what each side actually stands for. This has already begun to happen in California.
At the root of the confusion is the fact that affirmative action is not a debate in itself. Rather it is a rickety amalgam of two distinct debates, namely those of racial discrimination and of social inequality. It is only by unpicking these two threads that we can actually understand the debate.
Challenging the Politics of Race
African-Americans, and much more recently Hispanic-Americans, have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action. The effects of affirmative action on the level of the playing field between college applicants of different ethnic groups have been widely studied and documented. One of the most influential research programs was conducted by Thomas Espenshade of Princeton University. His research determined the impact of race on admissions by assessing the performance of applicants via SAT scores (on the 1600-point scale). By taking white applicants as a baseline, he was able to determine that African-American applicants are treated as having a bonus score of 230 additional points, and Hispanic-Americans gain a bonus of 185 points. It turned out from the study that the big losers of the affirmative action game were Asian-Americans, who received the equivalent of negative-50 points from the baseline.
The problem Espenshade’s analysis reveals is that young Americans are being measured by different standards simply on the basis of their race. Isn’t that exactly what the Civil Rights movement was about putting a stop to?
The key component of affirmative action that separates it from other kinds of government action on behalf of the economically disadvantaged is that it is inherently identity-based. A person living in poverty is not by nature a poor person. When their economic position is improved through employment and the building of their human capital, “poor” is discarded as a label.
This is not the case in matters of race. When social spending or advantages are aimed at a racial group, the label does not change. If anything, it has been permanently and indelibly imprinted on that group. The result is a defining of a whole race of people as in need of help, or in need of a “boost” compared to the majority population. Such policies and such beliefs are absolutely toxic to the working of a free, fair, and equal society. It shifts the discourse from citizenship as a whole to quasi-tribal groups to which one is bound by blood, not belief. Such a civil society is unworkable and anathema to the founding principles of the American republic.
Indeed, California is a perfect case study of the dangerous thinking that can arise when political and economic spoils are allocated on the basis of race. The Democratic Party establishment of California was shocked when the bill introducing the proposed reintroduction of affirmative action was opposed, and defeated, thanks to Asian-American Democratic legislators jumping ship and voting against. The reason for the opposition was not a matter of principle. Rather, it was pressure from lobby groups, and a large swathe of the Asian-American community, who saw the reintroduction of affirmative action as harmful to their community’s children’s prospects in college applications.
Surely there can be nothing more dangerous in a democratic society than the creation of intractable political battle-lines across which it is actually impossible to cross thanks to their being the product of race-centric politics. Affirmative action is essentially a spoils system that pits majority groups against minorities and minorities against each other. Such disastrous policies certainly don’t sound like a good way to fight either poverty or institutionalized discrimination.
Fighting Inequality of Opportunity
The problem with affirmative action as a mechanism for fighting entrenched disadvantage is that it fundamentally does not address the real issue at play. According to affirmative action’s way of thinking, the substandard education and economic background that some members of certain races or ethnicities come from translates into a need to provide special privileges and allowances to all members of those races or ethnicities at the point of college admissions. The problem with such thinking is two-fold.
In the first instance, it fails to acknowledge that members of a given ethnic group often have very different economic and life experiences. The fact is, entirely unsurprisingly to most people, there are countless successful African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans who are able to send their children to excellent schools where they succeed with aplomb. Affirmative action allocates special privileges to these people, even though the poverty and discrimination that supposedly inheres at the racial level has not in any way manifested. In reality, there is no such thing as an ethnicity-wide solution to a problem.
The second factor is that the problem of performance up to the point of college admission is in no way addressed. All affirmative action does is give the illusion of improved performance when in reality it is simply lowering the bar of performance. The way to actually address the issue of performance is to attack it root-and-branch in primary and secondary schools. What can be done? Weakening the ability of teachers unions to vacuum up money without any expectation of performance and expanding school choice through the promotion of charter schools and school vouchers would be a start.
The problems affirmative action tries to address are not actually cured by the policy. Rather, it masks the initial problem and then generates a cornucopia of new ones. Real answers lie in improving school performance so that when kids compete for places in college, they can do so on a genuinely even footing.