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Monday, April 20, 2009

Affirmative Action

The current Ricci v. DeStefano Supreme Court case involving the New Haven Fire Department has brought affirmative action into the spotlight again.

Evidently seventeen whites and one Hispanic passed the Department's exam for promotion to lieutenant or captain, while no blacks did. So in 2004 the mayor essentially threw out the test results, afraid that New Haven might be sued under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the "disparate impact" clause. (This essentially says that if an aptitude test results in fewer minority hires, it can't be used.) Now the whites are suing on the basis of racial discrimination.

The problem with such situations is that every broadly used standardized test of mental ability produces racially skewed results, with whites and yellows invariably outscoring browns and blacks. This is true of the SATs, ACTs, LSATs, GMATs, MCATs, and GREs, as well as the many sergeants', lieutenants', and captains' exams devised by police and fire departments across the country.

But if you can't hire and promote based on ability, how do you do so? By quotas? Even proponents of affirmative action shun that word these days. But affirmative action is basically just a glorified quota system; the fact that strict numerical quotas aren't enforced merely makes it a fuzzy quota system.

There are certainly other factors besides test scores that contribute to what makes a good employee. Many jobs require a certain amount of salesmanship, good presentation, the ability to get along with coworkers, good attendance, being a team player, and diligence. But many of these things can be judged only subjectively, so test scores are the best way to prevent too much personal bias from creeping in.

There were several ideas behind affirmative action when it first became national policy. First was that it was necessary to rectify past wrongs, namely slavery and segregation. Nobody argues that these weren't horrible wrongs, but the next question becomes, how long must affirmative action continue before these are rectified? Affirmative action has been in existence pretty much since the late 1960's, meaning that the vast majority of blacks in the work force today are affirmative action babies, as opposed to the Jim Crow babies they would have been back in 1965.

There is also the sticky matter of how much one should have to pay for the crimes of one's ancestors. In the old days in England, one could be sent to jail for the unpaid debts of one's parents. Today nobody would regard this practice as anything but grotesquely unjust, yet it is widely accepted that whites should pay for the discrimination that their ancestors practiced. (If a race has collective guilt, should individual blacks feel guilty -- or be penalized -- for the high rate of violent crime of their brethren? If a white person's father, say, is murdered by a black in the course of a stickup, should all blacks have to contribute to that person's welfare? The idea is ridiculous, of course, but not that far in concept from this particular justification for affirmative action.) And should whites whose ancestors never owned slaves be penalized for the actions of those long dead whites who did? And should blacks whose ancestors were never slaves benefit? Should someone whose father was from Kenya, say, be granted preference for Harvard Law School admission over a second generation immigrant of Czech descent?

During WWII people of Japanese ancestry were interned in concentration camps in California, and many of them had to sell their property at ten cents on the dollar before being taken away. Yet they are now overrepresented on the University of California campuses. Likewise, Jews had a long legacy of being discriminated against by Ivy League admissions offices, yet they are now overrepresented in those institutions. In both cases, previous discrimination was overcome due primarily to strong test scores, standardized and otherwise.

Conversely, Hispanics were never enslaved. And many of them are the offspring of people who came to this country recently as well as voluntarily. (And often, illegally.) Yet they benefit from affirmative action too. Why?

Another justification for affirmative action is that it is a way to get past the old boy network, which in the past has made employment in certain fields largely a matter of nepotism and cronyism. People in general do prefer to associate with their own, which makes it harder for blacks to break in to an established business. It's also true that unions used to exclude blacks as a matter of policy. This, of course, is one of the best justifications for standardized testing: to get rid of the element of personal favoritism that can poison any workplace.

A black friend once argued to me that one justification for affirmative action is that black people are more comfortable with other blacks, and a lot of them would rather have a black doctor, therefore some spaces in med schools should be set aside for blacks. This argument has some merit, although it is also justification for allowing communities to remain as segregated as they please. I'm also not entirely sure that if I were black, and seriously ill, it would make me want to see a black doctor. (As Muhammad Ali said when he first showed symptoms of Parkinson's Syndrome, "I'm gonna get me the best white doctors.")

I would be in favor of affirmative action if it were all about giving poor kids a fair chance. A ghetto kid who never knew his father and must work fifteen hours a week at the local McDonalds is not even close to being on a level playing field with an upper middle class white kid whose parents sent him to Stanley Kaplan, hired him tutors, and encouraged him to read. So the kid from the ghetto ought to be given some sort of compensatory advantage, perhaps 300 points on the SATs. Maybe the black kid's poverty is the legacy of slavery, maybe not, but that is irrelevant: the point is, he himself is at a disadvantage, and that's not fair. But some poor white kid from Appalachia who has to work fifteen hours a week to help his family out should also get the same edge over a middle class kid, black or white. But this is not how affirmative action works. Affirmative action mostly gives middle class black kids a leg up over middle class white kids, and even over poor white kids. If affirmative action were economically based rather than racially based, since blacks tend to be poorer, it would still help far more blacks on a percentage basis. And that would be fair, since each of the kids whom it helped would deserve a fair shot. Individually.

Look at it from another angle. NBA players are roughly seventy percent black, even though blacks compose only twelve percent of the population. Is this evidence of institutional racism? After all, all those standardized tests of what makes a good basketball player -- height, speed, ball-handling, shot-blocking, rebounding, and stuffing -- do have a disparate impact. So why no "affirmative action" for whites there? Most people just accept that blacks have a natural advantage when it comes to the type of athleticism it takes to reach the top echelons of basketball. Here, they somehow managed to overcome the legacy of slavery and racism to do well.

The basic problem always comes back to the fact that blacks just don't do as well on standardized tests. Statistics show that blacks from famiies which make over $70,000 a year score lower on the SATs, on average, than whites from families that make from $10,000 to $20,000. Whatever the legacy of slavery is, it would seem to have dissipated by the time a black family is well off.

Yet if you dare argue with the orthodoxy that all black underperformance on standardized mental tests is due to racism, you're drummed out of public life. Thus the deafening public silence on the matter. (Private conversations are a different matter; there is no other issue on which I have observed such a wide disparity.) You simply cannot speak honestly in the public forum about ethnic differences without being called a racist or a Nazi or a hater. But what exactly is meant by "hate?" If you say women are on average smaller and less muscular than men, does this mean you hate women? Does this mean you want to make them slaves of them, or lynch them, or exclude them from your gatherings? Or that you support the Fourth Reich? Of course not. Nor does it mean that you think every man is stronger than every woman. It just means you're realistic about average gender differences. To say otherwise would be silly. Yet racial differences -- and I stress, average differences -- remain a huge taboo. And as long as black underperformance is the elephant in the room which can never be mentioned, there can never be an honest debate about affirmative action.

Affirmative action also hurts blacks who have arrived by their credentials honestly. If I go into an emergency ward and am seen by a black doctor, my first thought is, oh no, I probably got an affirmative action doctor. The doctor might have aced his MCATs, finished first in his medical school class, and be heartwarmingly sympathetic. All of which would make my reaction totally off base. But as long as affirmative action is common practice, what other initial reaction could I have?

I've heard people who are pro-affirmative action scoff at those who are against it, as if they are coldhearted skinflints who don't want to help anybody. But this isn't a matter of some of your tax dollars going towards food stamps for hungry children. Affirmative action is a zero sum game. For every under-qualified applicant who is given admission to a college, a better-qualified applicant is turned away. For every low-scoring test taker who is given a promotion, a higher-scoring person is denied the promotion. This isn't a question of generosity. It's a question of fairness.

Affirmative action, of course, turns the old goals of civil rights -- race blind hiring and admissions -- on their head. Those who support affirmative action no longer want people to be judged on their individual merits -- they want them judged by their race.

As it stands now, affirmative action is a festering sore, a clear statement that what you are as a person matters less than your race.


Anonymous said...

Your article on affirmative action should be mandatory reading for all, well done.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- thank you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments. Not only does affirmative action hurt blacks and other minority groups who come by their credentials honestly, it hurts all those who miss out on an opportunity simply because racial quotas must be filled. Why bother with aptitude tests if unfavorable results can be tossed out? That is nothing more than reverse discrimination. Good for those who are fighting back.

Anonymous said...


Well said! As a dear friend of mine, ( Capt. William F. Burke Jr.) once said. "If you were trapped on the tenth floor of a burning building, who would you want to show up to carry you down. A 6" 2" 225 lb stud, or some affirmative action hire who happens to be 5' 8" 155lb. Enough said"

Stu Kaplan

John Craig said...

Thank you Stu. Speaking as one who is much closer to the second person you describe, I couldn't agree with Captain Burke more.