Affirmative Action: Unequal Protection?

The Economist has come out against race-based affirmative action in the United States, a surprising (to me) move given the magazine’s socially left-of-center outlook (e.g., for legalizing drugs and banning handguns). Indeed, the way in which affirmative action as currently practiced discriminates against Asians even more than against whites is difficult to justify. (I argued here that state-sponsored affirmative action is not inherently unjust.) Moreover, the paternalist case against affirmative action cannot be dismissed out of hand:

[After California banned affirmative action, t]he number of blacks and Hispanics enrolled fell, particularly at the flagship schools, Berkeley and UCLA.

What was more surprising was that in the entering class of 2000 a record number of black students graduated on time. Mr Sander and Mr Taylor argue that previously low black graduation rates were a result of the mismatch which occurs when a student granted preferential admission winds up at an institution for which he is not academically suited. He begins at a marked relative disadvantage and falls behind quickly. His grades get lower and lower and in the worst cases he loses confidence and fails to graduate.

Mr Sander and Mr Taylor attribute a host of bad outcomes to mismatch. For example, more black than white high-school seniors aspire to science and engineering careers, but once in college twice as many black students as white abandon those challenging fields.

Note that if you buy this argument against affirmative action, you should also oppose “legacy” preferences in affirmative action (and rational parents would not oppose the move, leaving no apparent constituency on the other side of the question).

Nevertheless, affirmative action in the United States is not as noxious as ethnic and racial preferences in many other parts of the world. In Sri Lanka, ethnic Sinhalese university applicants receive large preferences relative to ethnic Tamils. The reason seems to be nothing other than that Sinhalese are the majority in the country, and they will damned well discriminate against minorities however they please. (Such is the reality of democracy in the developing world.) In Malaysia, Malays and other bumiputera receive wide-ranging preferences in education and business. (For instance, firms must have at least 40% Malay ownership.) Chinese and Indians suffer.

So in most of the world, “affirmative action” just means that politically dominant ethnic groups get to repress the politically subordinate. But in the United States, affirmative action does not mean the translation of the ethnic majority’s political power into other spheres of social life. Blacks in the U.S. remain a small minority of the population and thus suffer from collective political disadvantage (due in part as well to their overwhelming support for one political party, which leads politicians to take their votes for granted). Eliminating all educational and economic advantages for blacks will alienate most of them. Of course, many African-Americans oppose affirmative action — but most still support it and see a role for it. The Supreme Court should be reluctant to impose a judicial solution to a sensitive political problem. A sweeping ruling constitutionally prohibiting virtually all racial preferences in all walks of life is more likely to increase racial tension than diminish it. The justices should apply the law but do so humbly, with the understanding that nine justices cannot foresee all future political contingencies.

5 thoughts on “Affirmative Action: Unequal Protection?

  1. In a nation as large as America with it’s multitude of citizens all with different associations,cultures and world outlooks it borders on an impossibility to have the government micromanage people’s lives. Having used the power of the state to enforce discriminatory bias (Jim Crow) laws 60 years ago should not be an excuse to turn the tables today and turn today’s “reverse bias” laws against innocent people that had nothing whatsoever to do with what happened 60 or 70 years ago in one section of the nation. A parallel would be to blame every German born after say 1935 with having anything to do with the holocaust and taxing that person to pay “reparations.” Any kind of “affirmative action” might seemingly have been a reasonable solution to past actions of discrimination.40 or 50 years ago if at all ,but not today. Affirmative Action opens a can of worms and,at the same time, punishes the achievers over the mediocrity. You cannot cure an injustice with another injustice. Finally, people should have the right to discriminate as long as they don’t use the power of the state to achieve their biased views. The state has no right to force me to associate with anyone I do not want to. The state has no right to violate my Constitutional property rights. When the American people put behind them the state backed bias laws 50 years ago it closed a chapter that was a stain on our history. To continue today,in the second decade of the 21st Century,with another type of state backed bias flies in the face of fairness and good will between the races. Instead these laws that put people into groups instead of treating them as individuals.will only increase the friction between citizens. In the end,the Affirmative Action Laws belong in the dust heap of history buried alongside Jim Crow. .

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