Rethinking affirmative action

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Rethinking affirmative action

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on June 30, 2005.

Boulder continues to be troubled by ethnic conflicts. Colorado's Democratic legislature passed two bills to expand legal protections for gays, one of which Governor Bill Owens vetoed. The University of Colorado, in its zeal to increase "diversity," apparently hired a white guy merely because he claimed to be a minority.

Maybe it's a good time to review laws and policies that are intended to help gays and minorities.

Within limits I have no problem with affirmative action. In my book, it's perfectly OK if an employer wants to hire a staff that consists, for example, entirely of gay minority women. Ironically, such a move would probably get an employer sued by straight white guys under today's anti-discrimination laws.

Affirmative action is a form of discrimination. Specifically, it is a policy (set either by employers or by politicians) by which hires are made not solely on the basis of merit, but also on the basis of race or some other genetic factor. Affirmative action by definition discriminates in favor of people with certain genetic traits and against people with different genetic traits. Affirmative action thus partly displaces discrimination based on other traits, such as experience or competence or social ties.

Affirmative action requires discrimination, while anti-discrimination laws forbid it. Yet most people who support one support the other, ignoring the inherent tension between them. The idea is that employers are supposed to discriminate in favor of hiring minorities, gays and women, yet not discriminate in favor of hiring straight white guys. "Reverse-discrimination" suits are one manifestation of the tension.

However, despite all the hostility and political fighting surrounding affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, we ought not underestimate our profound cultural advances or our common ground. Everyone in our culture agrees that laws ought to protect women equally. (See the film Osama for a modern example of horrifying discrimination against women.) Everybody agrees that racism is evil and that slavery -- whether based on racism or not -- is grotesque.

It's shocking to remember that our elders lived under Jim Crow laws (including laws that forbade interracial marriages), institutions now universally reviled.

We agree that violence against minorities, gays and women should be morally denounced and legally punished. We agree that employers should not refuse to hire somebody just because the person is gay, female or a member of some minority. Modern heroes include people who willfully violated old laws that forbade helping slaves escape and that entrenched segregation. Our culture rightly rejects bigoted attitudes and practices that were prevalent only decades ago, and the scattered few who cling to past bigotries are widely denounced.

Yet we are still very much in a transition stage. Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone I recently reviewed, describes the profound shift of the Baby Boomers. Now the Boomers have grandchildren, but it will take several more generations to completely move beyond bigotries of past eras. Yet, while many legal changes have unambiguously helped previously oppressed groups, might some policies be counterproductive or even unjust?

Owens recently vetoed legislation that would have added sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination laws. Three broad reasons support his veto. First, as Owens and various legislators suggested, courts often have a hard time figuring out whether somebody was fired (or not hired) because he or she is gay, or because he or she is unqualified or incompetent. Second, a business is the owner's property. Just as the state should not demand that you take new friends or invite various people into your home, so the state should not demand that business owners hire particular people.

Third, other mechanisms, such as moral censure and boycott, are effective ways to punish bigoted employers. While it's true that some bigoted right-wingers opposed the bill for bad reasons, that doesn't undermine the reasonable case in favor of the veto.

What about affirmative action? Marie Gryphon (whom I met last month in Boston) recently wrote an article titled "The Affirmative Action Myth" for the Cato Institute (available online). She discusses racial preferences in college admissions and finds that "the claim that they benefit formerly oppressed racial groups and promote racial healing... is untrue."

Gryphon argues that affirmative action policies "have broken down constitutional protections against classification by race..." Looking at the most recent research, she finds that affirmative action does not help minorities gain access to college. Instead, she writes, "Minority underrepresentation in college is caused by public schools' failure to prepare minority students." Nor do preferences increase future income for minority students.

Gryphon writes, "Affirmative action may increase minority dropout rates by mismatching students and schools." This "mismatch" probably also undermines the confidence and performance of minority students of all abilities because of the "stereotype threat." Ironically, this may actually harm integration of students of various ethnicities.

Gryphon laments the "tendency to frame the argument over preferences in terms of fundamental values..." Instead, she looks to the results of affirmative action and concludes, "Only no-fuss integration and a focus on building real skills will lead to success."

If more minority students are better prepared for college, more will also enter academic careers, which will also obviate the (perceived) need for affirmative action in the hiring of college faculty. And even supporters of affirmative action say that the ultimate goal is not to need it.

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