Note: See Part I for some context on this series.
The first argument for affirmative action is based on seeing it as a remedy for discrimination. Affirmative action can be implemented to prevent qualified applicants from being passed over because of race. I don't think anyone in the debate disagrees with affirmative action for this purpose. Even Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas, who think it's always wrong to lower standards based on race, think it's ok to use affirmative action to require people not to raise standards based on race. The problem with using this argument to support affirmative action in higher education is that no one in college admissions discriminates against underrepresented minorities. Current policies go the other way, and those in positions to influence who will be hired in admissions offices would prefer to hire people who approve of affirmative action. So this could be a good argument for affirmative action in hiring but not for college admissions.
The one place some might legitimately object to this is in any discrimination against underrepresented minority groups that occurs before the college admissions process. If that takes place, it might affect the things college admissions officers look to when determining an applicant's qualifications. I don't think there's a lot of such discrimination that really affects those scores. I know this is Wink's view, so perhaps he can do a better job of representing it in the comments. The reason I don't find this very plausible is that IQ test scores among whites seem to line up very well with whether the group in question is well connected with society and its development. Rural groups that haven't interacted with mainstream society have tested lower on certain kinds of test questions. Often in the next generation, this disappears or at least gets minimized. In the case of Irish and Italian immigrants around the time of World War I, the gap disappeared entirely. In the case of Jewish immigrants at the same time, they surpassed the averate for whites. Black Americans have on average been lower than whites by a certain amount, and as whites' IQ raw score (before the adjustment for fixing the average at 100) so has the black average. That means black Americans have had the benefit of the increase as integration has been realized to a greater degree, and opportunities for black people have become fairly mainstream. Yet the test gap is still there. The increase has taken place in both groups but with not a lot of equalization between the groups. The progress among black Americans and eminently noticeable decrease in discrimination hasn't had an effect on the relative test gaps.
Just to head off any who might suggest that this is an innate racial gap in intelligence, that's demonstrably false. Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean tend to do much better on these tests than black Americans. I don't know the numbers offhand, so I don't know if it's par with white Americans. I do know that all the black students I've had from Africa or the Caribbean have been among my best ever, hands down. Intelligence isn't entirely innate anyway. It involves an innate potential, which some people have to a greater degree than others, but it gets realizes due to social factors, and some have more amenable factors to developing it more easily.
Enough whistleblowers have come forward now about the unfortunate tendency in black America to see learning and school as "white" and therefore not a place to enjoy for its own sake that it's not surprising that black students raised in the United States, even if for mainly peer pressure reasons, would have lower test scores and grades. That cultural attitude can't be the only factor. Life is too complicated to expect such simple answers to complex cultural causal questions. Still, it fits with enough of what I've seen in my own teaching (and I've had confirmation from colleagues) that I've been convinced that it has a serious effect on at least a noticeable chunk of the black community in the U.S.
The thing that I see as really dangerous here is not that it encourages laziness or a bad attitude toward school so that high school students don't put their all into their work. John McWhorter gives all sorts of anecdotes about situations in college classes much later down the line than what I think is the explanation of the low test scores. This is an issue of development of intelligence. If engaging in certain practices that are seen by many black people as "white" would be crucial for the development of certain kinds of intelligence (i.e. for the realization of the innate potential for that intelligence), then it wouldn't be surprising if black students end up not developing that potential at the time when it would be crucial for them to do so if they are to be better at abstract reasoning and other kinds of intelligence that are important for success in college, particularly in fields where black people are underrepresented. Since these tests test exactly those sorts of intelligence, this seems to be a highly plausible explanation of the test gap that doesn't have anything to do with discrimination or any kind of racism. (I do want to note that there are a number of kinds of intelligence that I think black youth have developed quite well, some far better than white people have. Hip-hop demonstrates some of that. It's just that these aren't the kinds of intelligence that tests test, and the reason for that is that these tests have proved excellent at predicting success in college and in life after college, so there's no reason to complain that the tests should be broadened. They'd then cease to be useful.)
I'll get into more detail on the test gap issue and intelligence in a later post, but I needed to say something about it here to give a sense of why I think this response to my argument doesn't seem to me to be as strong as it first sounds. There is discrimination out there, and some of it is unknown to the people doing it, some known but seen as unimportant. It's not anything like the kind of thing that went on when Frederick Douglass went to Harvard or the kind of obstacles to the untouchables in India face are far worse than anything 99% of African Americans will ever see (and I'm not talking just a few notches worse, either). John McWhorter and other affirmative action opponents (in the school case, anyway, for McWhorter) see claims that discrimination causes the test gaps as insulting. He sees the suggestion that whatever discrimination still remains is somehow so crippling to black Americans that it causes as wide a test score as we have as an insult to all those who came before who worked hard, who did their best to do things that now get seen as "white", who succeeded, and who are now heroes of black America, people just like Frederick Douglass, though many are unsung. I think McWhorter overstates his case when he gives being followed in a store, being stopped by cops at unusual frequencies, and such things as the only kind of discrimination. Wink has a more education-related disrcimination in mind. Still, I don't have an idea of how that kind of discrimination would explain the test gap as it is, never mind explain it better than the explanation I've offered.
What I think might therefore be a reasonable conclusion is that lowering standards a little bit to take into account such factors as there are wouldn't be so bad. I don't think discriminatory practices in schools below the college level are enough to give someone so much benefit of the doubt as to favor someone with 200 points lower on the SAT and a whole grade point average lower simply because of race. I'll look later at the claim that race counts as a qualification. If race makes someone better at t a job, that's one thing. If diversity is the issue, that's another. I'll come to those points. Here race isn't a qualification but an encumberment that qualifies someone for a head start. Should you give someone that much of a head start? I don't think there's a strong argument (at least in what I've looked at so far) that we should. Yet that's what the average affirmative action policy does. I can't see lowering standards that much to make up for discriminatory practices that are as hard to see as they must be for them to survive in this politically correct time (not that it's bad to oppose discrimination, but it's harder for it to survive). It may well be there at a larger scale than we can see, but I have a hard time believing it contributes as much to the problem as other, more noticeable (at least when they're pointed out), forces.