Affirmative Action, Part II: Remedying Discrimination

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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.

9 Comments

So this could be a good argument for affirmative action in hiring but not for college admissions.

I have in the past been guilty of conflating both types of affirmative action and have been called on it. Public apologies. I firmly stand by the practice as a remedy for hiring. Experiments have shown that if the people reading the resumes even suspect that an applicant is an underrepresented minority (because, in the test cases, the name is common in the african-american community), then that applicant will receive only 2/3 of the callbacks than an identical resume with a name that is common among whites. This seems to me to be a solid case for affirmative action.

As for college admissions...it is not clear that such a bias exists in this case. While "Current policies go the other way", that is by no means any sort of guarantee that the admissions officers are themselves free of all racism. I can certainly believe that in the top tiers of colleges, the admissions officers truly want as much diversity as possible--it is a big marketing tool for them. But can the same be said for all the colleges? Community colleges? Bible institutes? Culinary institutes? I'm not so sure...

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.

OK, here goes. This is indeed my view, for both college admissions and for hiring. I'm glad that Jeremy sees this line of thought as a legitimate one. If an applicant has been discriminated against, and as a result has received lower scores and grades, then I think that affirmative action is an appropriate remedy for that situation.

Since Jeremy conceds the point about hiring, I'll focus on college admissions.

There are 5 main things that college admissions officers look at:
1) Grades
2) Standardized test scores
3) Personal essay
4) Extra curricular activities
5) Teacher recommendations

(with 1 and 5 being weighted by the toughness of the high school)

Discrimination/racism can easily have a negative influence on all but #s 2 and 3. (Even 3 is not totally exempt...most of us should be old enough to remember that the SAT used to be (unintentionally) biased towards upper class whites by testing vocabulary which was common in upper class white circles and rare in african-american circles.) Racist teachers and coaches can and do have a direct impact on 1, 4, and 5. And as a result can indirectly affect 2 and 3.

In addition to the school factors are the general environmental factors. If an applicant is exposed to discrimination constantly (including outside of school), then that applicant must spend considerable energy dealing with said discrimination. That is energy that is not available for improving factors 1-5. In other places, I've compared the discrimination that an underrepresented minority faces as a 20lb weight. If I am a track coach and I watch a marathon where the winner is unencumbered but the 2nd place finisher (who loses by a minute) has a 20lb weight on her back, well, I know which one I want on my team desite the lower official time.

So the question is, are there really environmental factors which consume a significant portion of an underrepresented minority's energy which have no similar effect on overrepresented groups? I am inclined to say yes. There have been controlled experements where the subjects are told to shoot the "bad guys" (using essentially video game guns and a TV screen). The subjects are told what constitutes bad guys and what constitutes innocents. Subjects consistently shoot more innocent "people" (video game characters) who are given dark pigmentation than light pigmentation even though all other aspects of the innocent victims remain the same. Getting shot at more sure seems like it would have a negative impact on 1 and 4.

There is a certain fear of cops in most african-american communities, a palpable mistrust. Whether justified or not, this feeling of persecution, of fear, of having to be on your best behavior, of being under added suspicion can certainly be a factor that has a negative impact on grades and academic performance. The time and energy wasted on that is not available for things that admissions officers find valuable.

There are many more of these factors which combine to drain a minority applicant's resources. These are just the first ones that pop to mind.

This same arguement applies to socio-economic class as well. The poor have addition obstacles to overcome to achieve the same grades as the affluent. For example, they may need to work a significant number of hours in addition to going to school. A B+ by someone who is also going to work 20hrs a week is more impressive than an A- by someone who does not work at all. I believe that there should be a kind of affirmative action for class as well. (It looks like this is the position that Jeremy will take.)

However, there are obstacles that are specific to race. I've listed two above. For that reason, I do not think that a class based affirmative action (though necessary) will be sufficient.

You make a good point about smaller schools. I was indeed thinking of the higher reputation schools, but I think this includes most of the better state schools. I'm not thinking just elite private institutions. I also want to say that discrimination can occur in elite institutions at the graduate level, when departments are making the decisions and not admissions offices. I don't think it would be as common as in, say, culinary institutes, but I think the potential is greater than with undergraduate admissions.

I'm not sure I'd be willing to go as far as seeing discrimination as it exists as a 20lb. weight, at least for the majority of people in underrepresented groups. I do think some people might regularly bear a weight that great. For a great many it's more like a few pounds nowadays, with some days having to carry more weight but not always. John McWhorter sees the cop issue as the primary bastion or racism still at a serious level in American society. It's gotten better, but the fact that racial profiling exists in situations where race is irrelevant (e.g. the New Jersey Turnpike) and that cops are even a little more likely to consider someone darker to be suspicious (which adds up) can have a terrible psychological effect, even if for the vast majority of young black men it only means being stopped by the cops a little more often than white people who dress and act similarly and drive similar vehicles. I don't see how that should be seen as crippling enough to justify boosting someone's SAT scores by 200 points so they'll qualify for admissions, but I don't necessarily see it as immoral for it to count for something.

I have no problem whatsoever with affirmative action on the basis of class, with some safeguards. I'll get to that later, but I will say now that whether someone works can be seen as a qualification in its own right. Working 20 hours a week should count as an extracurricular activity of some sort, and it shouldn't need to be seen as going along with socio-economic class. My parents strongly encouraged all of us to have jobs, but it wasn't to earn money for living (though they could have used it at the time). They just decided we needed to be responsible and work part-time jobs during school and full-time jobs in the summer. So we did. I think Brown saw that as a qualification on my application, completely independent of socio-economic class (which at the time was at best lower middle class, mostly due to cultural values and social circles and less due to income, which was clearly lower class when I was in high school). Someone who can do well in school while working a job should count more favorably than someone who does equally well without the job, simply because it shows responsibility.

Socio-economic hurdles include more than that (e.g. access to computers, which poorer area schools aren't as good with, though public libraries really are getting good at that now, and someone extremely poor with initiative can easily learn how to use a computer and use them regularly if they put their mind to it, with the major limitation being time if they have to work many hours while going to school). For these reasons, I do think affirmative action should be aimed at those who have had more obstacles, and a black middle class student with a low work ethic and barely qualifying SATs and grades should be less of a target than a black working class student with a high work ethic with barely qualifying SATs and grades. This will make a big difference when we look at who actually benefits from most affirmative action.

I do think some people might regularly bear a weight that great. For a great many it's more like a few pounds nowadays, with some days having to carry more weight but not always.

Sure. At any rate, those who bear any weight should be evaluated with that in mind. Hence affirmative action. A 200 point boost in teh SAT is probably no longer appriproate, but some lesser number is probably right. Affirmative action should be calibrated to the average "weight" that the underrepresented bear. This calibration should be done every few years. When the underreprsented are no longer bearing extra weight, then this postion of affirmative action should be dropped. (Similarly, the boost given to applicants to combat bias in the hirer/applications officer should be calibrated to the average bias. When that is gone, then that portion of affirmative action should disappear too.)

I don't necessarily see it as immoral for it to count for something.

Of the people who agree with me that the underrepresented bear extra weight, many of them that I've talked to do see it as immoral. I've come across two camps.

The first argues that affirmative action as I've described it is imperfect. Some whites, for example, bear a greater burden than some african americans. Because it is unfair to some, then it is a bad policy and should be abandoned.

I find this line of reasoning absurd. Yes it is imperfect, but must every plan be perfect in order to be implimented? Democracy isn't perfect, yet we're happy to give it a go. What I find even more absurd is that this group agrees that blacks in general bear an extra burden. Yet, so the reasoning goes, that burden should not be taken into account because it might be unfair to some whites. What???? So they seem o admit that blacks are being treated unfairly, but the only unfairness that matters is unfairness done to whites??!!?

It seems obvious to me that if affirmative action is implimented correctly (calibrated to averages as noted above), then it will be right more often than it will be wrong. Yes it won't be perfect, but it will be far better than not having any affirmative action at all.

The second group also thinks that affirmative action as I've outlined it is imperfect. They say that all burdens should be accounted for, not just race. Or rather, race shouldn't even be considered a burden per se, but that all burdens which result from racism should be accounted for, as well as burdens which result from: gender, class, family situation (e.g. single parent families), age, health, nationality, environmental factors (e.g. being shot at), etc.

Basically, they argue, affirmative action should not be based on race, but on an overall picture of burden.

I fully agree with this sentiment, but I don't see this solution as ever coming to pass. The logistics of coming up with a "budern profile" for every applicant is insane. I'd love to see it happen, but I'm not holding my breath. Until this happens, I'm happy to accept affirmative action (one for race and one for class) which buys me 90% of the benefit of a "perfect" system while remaining affordable and practical.

At any rate, it looks like we largely agree on the ethics of affirmative action and the need for a class based version. It seems that our only disagreement might be in how much burden is associated with race.

Actually, the logistical issue of how different burdens are too hard to keep track of seems to me to be a good argument for phasing out affirmative action as the burden decreases. Thurgood Marshall, I think, had the same idea in mind when he made the claim in 1978 that he thought by 100 years from then there'd be no need for it, even if there was still some discrimination. Since progress has been quicker than he imagined, the issue is going to be when enough progress has taken place. The argument I've just given should give some reason that discrimination doesn't have to be all gone before affirmative action should be gotten rid of.

I suspect that some of the other issues that will come up may show some differences. I think there are some harmful effects of affirmative action that a reasonable person can view as outweighing this prima facie reason for affirmative action. That's why when I started I framed it as a pro and con issue.

Stuides have shown that even though race based affirmative action is considered to demoralize underrepresented minorities that once admitted into the institution they excel. Regardless of the test scores,(because we all know that tests do not hold much predictive validity), these students allowed in on the basis of race seemingly enough do have the drive and motivation it takes to succeed in an institution such as an Ivy League. Being an African American student at Cornell I find that many of the right- winged white students feel as though my place within the institution was given and not earned. Placing that stigma against people of color here is not only wrong and ignorant yet it only shows how the "White" society nestled within the finger lakes of upstate New York continues to skew the ideas surrounding Black achievement, Latino achievement etc. We will be having a debate this week about affirmative action because several students feel as if it should be dismantled. Personally I feel that legacy is the most widely used form of affirmative action and when people of another race, who might I add have been so oppressed, create their own way of success are looked at as being reverse racists and prejudiced. I tell you that if the administration, California, Bakke all feel that the welfare of Whites students getting into college and into "great jobs" is the the only concern of the nation then prejudice and reverse discrimination do not sit at the door step of those in support and benefit from this program but at those who constantly elude themselves from the good of such a program designed to provide America's benifts to all and not to the some.

Does any one have any strong arguments in favor of this program that I may be able to use?

thanks

Cornell Student
Class of '07

You have to keep in mind that at Cornell's level much of what I've been saying isn't true. Most of the best students do end up at that level, and they do deserve to be there. Since the standards are lower, there are also students who didn't have as good grades and/or scores, but a larger percentage of the black students at Cornell could have gotten in without affirmative action. They do use affirmative action to drive the underrepresented numbers up a bit, so there are people there who wouldn't otherwise have gotten in, but the top schools are really not the ones with the biggest effect from affirmative action.

The other reason people at Cornell will thrive is something I know firsthand as an Ivy League graduate. You don't have to be as good a student as Ivy League admissions standards would lead you to expect to do well at an Ivy. There are schools with a work level that isn't much less and with grading standards that aren't much less that have lower standards because they have a lower reputation. The reason the standards for getting into Cornell are so high is that they need to have some way of limiting the applicant pool, because there's no way they can accept as many of their applicants as could do well there. Some who could do well there get turned down. What affirmative action does is it takes some who could do well there who otherwise would not have gotten in and lets race be the reason to accept them rather than letting just other factors be the guide. This is not at all true when you get to lower levels of selectivity. At the average state institution, the admissions requirements are much lower, because they're trying to let in more people, not fewer. The result is that the lowering of standards at that sort of place may well lead to taking students who can't hack it there but could have done well at a community college.

So that's why what you're saying is true about places like Cornell. In other contexts, though, your first claim does turn out to be false. Since some of the students who would otherwise be qualified at places like Ithaca College, which is a little easier to get into than Cornell, fewer people of underrepresented groups who would otherwise have been there are there because they're at places like Cornell. That means a larger number of people at places in the next level down have to be pulled up to fill those spots than the number of people at the second level who were pulled up into the first level. Then the third level will pull up even more people from the fourth than were pulled from the third to the second. And so on. By the time you get to the community college level, many students are there who aren't ready for college at all, which happens at higher levels also, especially due to atheletic programs. I've experienced this firsthand in tutoring football players. The same phenomenon happens with affirmative action but just not in as extreme a form.

But what you're saying, while generally true about places like Cornell, is not as true about places lower on the competitiveness scale. In general, the fail-out rate for students in the under-represented groups that are supposed to be helped by affirmative action is much higher than the rates of other groups. Also, in general, SAT scores do turn out to be a very good predictor of success at the academic level. There are plenty of things they don't predict, but studies do in fact show that performance at the college level for an individual school tends to correspond to SAT score. Where the tests fail is in overpredicting the success of underrepresented groups. The tendency is actually to do worse than the SAT scores would indicate. This doesn't show up as clearly at Cornell, because enough of the black students there didn't need affirmative action to get in.

I'm not sure where you're getting your information, but you should probably take a look at Bowen and Bok, the standard work on this issue. They happen to favor affirmative action policies, by the way, so there's no way you can claim bias against affirmative action.

As for strong arguments, what I'm trying to do in this series is come up with the strongest arguments that I think are possible. I think there's definitely some merit to some of these points. That's why I'm spending time determining exactly how much merit there is to them. I think the arguments against it will count very heavily against some of these points. Since I haven't gotten that far yet, the argument is incomplete, but I think what I've said so far is a pretty fair presentation of these arguments in favor of affirmative action. I'm surprised that it can't be of any help to you in framing that argument.

It's humorous sometimes to see how some people who obviously feel they are intellectually superior and like to use big words and long-winded sentences are often guilty of the most grammatical errors and mispellings. They act like they review things over and over yet they can't even proofread what they type?

Jeremy,
By what basis do you argue for discriminating against Appalachian whites in favor of inter-city blacks? Might it be fairer for admissions practices to utilize a lottery (random process) to select from your pool of "disadvantaged" applicants. One of your posters indicated that "weak" vs "strong" high schools were a known factor. Could you just pool applicants from those "weak" schools, and accept a random selection from that pool who might have weaker SAT and grade scores?

Did I argue that we should discriminate against Appalachian whites in favor of inter-city blacks? I didn't think I did. My view is that affirmative action should be largely class-based and in certain very specific contexts race-based but with a small amount of lowered standards and not the huge differentials used in standard admissions programs today.

One of the problems with giving preferences even based on class or weak high schools is that the students aren't going to be as prepared for their institution, and it ends up harming them if they will end up getting much worse grades or not finishing. They'd be better off starting off at an institution more at their level. That's why I think whatever kind of preference you use can't be too exaggerated. If you have a minimum SAT of 1000, you might let someone in with a 950. Affirmative action as it stands lowers the standards by 200 or 300 points for blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos irrespective of class, high school background, or anything else that might be the real factors behind lower performance with grades or test scores.

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