This is the 6th part of an ongoing series, beginning here. The links to all the other parts are in the inaugural post. I've looked at a few arguments in favor of affirmative action so far, and we're now up to the argument based on equal opportunity. Affirmative action opponents insist that affirmative action leads to less equal opportunity for those who are not intended to benefit from it (i.e. white people for the most part, also Asians at many elite schools, and men for gender-based affirmative action). There's something to that, because someone in that position has to meet higher standards to be accepted than someone in an under-represented group, and something similar occurs in workplace affirmative action cases. However, those who argue for affirmative action on equal opportunity grounds want to make a case that those in the underrepresented groups don't really have equal opportunities. Many of them are in a demographic group that has a higher instance of being impoverished, though most of those who apply to college are not in that group as it turns out and are thus not representative of their group. One problem has to do with less access to necessary tools for doing well in school, including computers, though most public libraries have those now, and SAT preparation classes, which aren't necessary to doing well on the SAT but do give a distinct advantage, and only the upper end of the middle class will want to shell out the money for them, but once that's clear it's not longer a racial issue but a financial issue, and poor white people will need to be given the benefit of lower standards also. No current policy I know of does that. If there is indeed discrimination that's harmful enough to people in these groups, then there's less opportunity to succeed. That was the subject of the first argument I considered. I could spend some time listing the ways there might not be equal opportunities, but that's not so much the point. I don't think any conservative on the issue of affirmative action will insist that there are no ways in which underrepresented groups will in general turn out to have a lower level of opportunity to achieve as high scores and grades as others. As a group, they have a lower level of opportunity.
As far as I can tell, the main argument against this line of reasoning isn't that opportunities are less in some way for underrepresented people than they are for others. It's that they're less in the wrong ways and/or that they're less but not to a significant enough degree. John McWhorter, for instance, says that it's insulting to black people to assume that what remains of racism, which is real and harmful, should prevent black students from doing well enough to get into college. It's true that some teachers could be biased, and that might affect grades and reference forms. It's true that being followed around in stores and stopped more often by the police is bad and can affect self-esteem or attitudes toward authority that might lead to less performance in school. It's insulting to black people, McWhorter says, to lower standards by 300 points for the SAT and a whole letter grade or more for grades if the above instances of racism are the justification. People like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois faced much worse and excelled, so how can these kinds of smaller things in comparison count as a reason to say the opportunities are much, much less for a middle class black student today to the point of justifying affirmative action policies like the ones we currently have.
One other factor seems relevant to me. Consider the case of an extremely overweight girl. She will certainly have fewer opportunities at many things than many other people would, partly because of her weight and partly because she's an overweight girl in a society where that sort of combination leads to ostracism in many ways. She obviously has barriers to success, and they seem like those in the case of many black people who face moderate racism. Does this constitute grounds for affirmative action for overweight women? I didn't think so. Then we have to reconsider whether it does in the race case. If it does, then there should be a clear distinction between the two cases to justify different treatment. I haven't seen anyone make that yet.
I want to be clear about what I'm saying. Other things being equal, this seems to me to be a good argument, in cases where someone has genuinely been held back in some ways, to give some more consideration even in the way of lowering standards slightly. The problem is that it doesn't justify the affirmative action policies in effect right now. Those go way too far for this kind of consideration, just as I suggested that they might for some of the other arguments I gave. As I've said before, there will also be the issue of harm caused by affirmative action, which might outweigh the good it accomplishes. So this kind of argument is at best one item of the good it accomplishes and not an absolute argument.
This feels inadequate compared to the more lengthy posts on other arguments, but I have a lot less to say about this unless there's stuff that comes up in the comments that I need to address. The key issues have all come up in earlier posts in the series, so if you want more details and haven't read the other posts then go read them first and if you don't see what you're looking for or still have a question, objection, or other thought then please comment.