This is part ten of an ongoing series on affirmative action that I've been continuing sporadically. The first post is here. It introduces the series and provides links to each post in the series. This is my final post on the arguments in favor of affirmative action, and I've saved the one I think is best for last. One common objection to affirmative action is that it's in principle ruled out by the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court hasn't been willing as a body to go along with this, but three justices (Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas) do seem to me to think it's a good argument. If it's unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of race, then why is it ok to discriminate in admissions on the basis of race?
I don't ultimately think that's a good argument, for one reason. Race can be used as the basis of discrimination when race is relevant. If a government-funded performing arts company decided to stage a perfomance about Malcolm X, they are well within their rights to discriminate against white or Asian actors for the part of the lead character. They'll want someone black. If they were doing a perfomance about President Bush, they won't select a black lead unless they want to do some weird sort of parody. [People sometimes do this. Othello has been done with the races of characters all reversed.] Most of the time it's perfectly ok to see being black or being white as a qualification to play a character who is specified as black or white. It's technically discrimination, but it's not legally discrimination, because race properly counts as a qualification for the position in question. Some have argued that affirmative action can be justified on similar grounds. If race counts as a qualification, then affirmative action is merely treating qualifications as what they are. Not using affirmative action would then be ignoring real qualifications.
Why would someone think of race as a qualification for positions that aren't like the Malcolm X example? Can being black count as a qualification for being a teacher in a district with a large black population? I don't see why not. I don't see why it necessarily is, either, but I can think of circumstances when it would be. What if the particular school in question has a very high percentage of teachers who are white, and the majority of the students are black? Is there any reason for them to prefer that any new teachers being hired will be black? I think so. The fact that someone will likely be coming from a shared background with the students that most of the teachers don't have is definitely a plus. It might help them with some of the things a good teacher will do well.
This shouldn't mean that an unqualified job applicant would be hired, with race counting as the only qualification. It would certainly mean that race could be the deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified candidates. Race as a qualification would thus rightly increase our sense of the candidate's qualifications, because one qualification of being a good teacher might be an ability to connect with students. Race wouldn't decide this, but it might be a factor.
It's a little easier to think mathematically about qualifications when we move to the admissions context. At least some university and college admissions processes reduce the admissions process to numbers, anyway. That may not be the best way to evaluate potential students, but mathematical calculations are part of the process. Test scores and grades are pretty straightforward. You have a certain score, or you don't. Most schools have a minimum threshold for admission for the general body of applicants, and then they have a lower threshold for people in minority groups subject to affirmative action. If race is a genuine qualification, then this doesn't violate the 14th Amendment.
Why would race be a qualification for higher education? I can think of a few reasons. One is that colleges and universities aren't running a competition with standards that obligate them to accept people according to strict criteria. What they're doing is seeking to find the people they most want in their school. They prefer to have better students, but they also prefer to have more well-rounded students. They prefer to have students coming from various backgrounds, and why wouldn't race be one of those? If the fact that I raised chickens in high school could tilt the scales in favor of me (which it most certainly would do at some schools), then why wouldn't being part of a minority group that's underrepresented at that particular school? It counts as a qualification in terms of what the school is looking to accomplish by filling these spots in their next class of students.
So there doesn't seem to be an in-principle objection to using race as a qualification in admissions decisions. There can be some justification, at least, for using it as a tie-breaker with equally qualified students. I would say that a stronger conclusion is true. If race is a genuine qualification, then it's true that it can be used as a tie-breaker, because it means it's not really a tie. It means that it's only a tie if you ignore the qualification of race, but if race is a qualification then the tie is really broken. But once you allow that, then you're allowing race to raise your evaluation of a candidate. If that's possible, then it seems possible that it would raise the evaluation of the candidate above another candidate who in all other ways (i.e. ignoring race) is indeed more qualified. If race is a qualification, then you're evaluating things wrongly if you think such a person is all things considered more qualified, so race can indeed be used to favor someone who would otherwise be viewed as less qualified. This goes for employment and admissions.
I do think this can be abused. It may well be abused in most admissions contexts. It's not quite accurate to say that standards are being lowered if race is a genuine qualification. Test scores and grades are counting less because other qualifications are counting more. But how much should they count? If the minimum GPA for a pretty good school is B-, how low should their minimum GPA for underrepresented minority students be? My understanding is that it's usually about a full grade point lower than the general minimum, which in this case would be C-. Should race count as that much of a qualification? With test scores, the same thing happens. On the old 1600-scale SAT, some school must have had a general minimum of, say, 1250. If the minimum for underrepresented minority students was 1050, that seems pretty radically different. Is race that much of a qualification? I don't think so. Yet my understanding is that 200-point gaps between the general minimum and the affirmative action minimum have been common enough. I don't think my argument justifies a gap even close to that large. [I don't have a lot of hard data on this at hand. Does anyone happen to know of anywhere online that does? John McWhorter gives some here, and this article gives some as well.]
I should mention that this is also exactly what goes on with athletes at most institutions. I've tutored Syracuse University football and basketball students for two summers, and I've had a number of them in my classes. Some of them are pretty good students, and I'm sure they would have been accepted here regardless of their athletic ability. Some of them aren't ready for college. Not even close. They shouldn't be here. It's bad for them to be expected to do more than they're prepared for, and it's bad for the university to accept people who won't make it through two years with enough passed classes to stay on the team (and thus stay in school). If they were at an institution better suited to teach at the level they're prepared for, then I'm sure they would be better prepared for life, and it's in the best interest of the university not to accept them with standards lowered that much. The affirmative action issue is in many ways parallel, though not anywhere near as extreme in terms of how much the numerical expectations are lowered. This argument is good in principle but is often taken well beyond what it in fact establishes as allowable and good.
If you put this together with what I've accepted as good in the other arguments I've considered, then we have a pretty solid argument that affirmative action is not in principle bad and at least in certain circumstances is a good thing. My overall argument in the series will be that there's a lot of bad in affirmative action as well, and my next post will begin looking at the arguments against these policies. In the end, I think it's a matter of whether the good consequences will outweigh the bad consequences. It doesn't seem to me that any in-principle argument guarantees an answer, so it's mainly about whether these policies are overall more good or more bad, which means no one argument is going to establish anything on its own but must be taken in light of all the other arguments. Thus I'll now move on to the objections to affirmative action in my next post.