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Complexities of Affirmative Action

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When I first heard about the court case in the USA Supreme Court of a Texan who claims that she was denied access to the further education of choice because less qualified minority students were accepted on the basis of race, my first instinct was to think poorly of the girl and to wonder who put her up to it. The university she was applying for already has a program that allows the top 10% of students automatic acceptance, but she didn’t qualify for that. Supposedly that category of students makes up over 70% of the new admission to the university and the university gets to decide “holistically” who should be included in the other portion. The university can use that other portion to help them snag some sports players or musicians that they want to be on their teams or in their orchestras. They can also consider race. Given all the possible reasons why a student might be accepted and the assumption that they don’t publish everyone’s “score” and breakdown online, what makes her so convinced that she would be better qualified than those who did get in? Isn’t it just poor sportsmanship that she can’t recognize she might not qualify? Or is it using an opportunity to gain some notoriety and at the same time take a strike against an agenda she doesn’t support?

On the other hand, affirmative action does have some problems and why should I judge her as a person because of her stand against it? Could she be right? Is it unfair? I need statistics. I want to see the research as to whether affirmative action is needed still. I can find webpages such as this one that say yes, affirmative action is still needed and no, it isn’t unfair to Caucasians. Yet I’m pretty sure that a person against affirmative action could come up with webpages and statistics in favor of it. The flood of information on the internet makes it harder to evaluate what the truth of a matter might be.

I found an ebook I could get free through the Dorrance Publishing Companies Review Team. It’s called The Argument: Poems of the Black Experience in the Workplace. Each poem is in a different voice, telling a different point of view and it talks about the human experience, the emotions, fears, angers, doubts and arguments that affirmative action brought to some workplaces. At least a fair number of those would apply in a university setting as well. Some of the poems talk about pride in the positions people obtain and frustration at the subtle ways employers attempted to get around promoting a black person. One poem talks about being called a sell-out for taking a corporate job. Another talks about a person wanting to be able to fail without it being taken as a reflection on his race.

The most fascinating thing for me is the many, many ways in which people’s views of other individuals are distorted by their perception of how affirmative action works. People can look at the other person and think “they only got where they are because of affirmative action.” Even the person him or herself might wonder if he or she is really being held to the same standards. Yet at the same time, people who are assumed to be assisted by affirmative action may be being held to even higher standards by people wanting to prove that they aren’t giving the person a free ride. It’s like my assuming that the university student in Texas probably didn’t qualify and is just being a poor sport and her assuming that the members of minority groups who got in aren’t as qualified as she is. Affirmative action is like price-control distorting market prices, affirmative action distorts people’s ability to assume that the forces of selection in human-resource and university admissions reflects people’s real qualifications. A person being hired or admitted no longer functions as an adequate yard-stick. Probably this is a good thing. Probably it would be better if no one assumed that people’s position or lack of position was a reflection of who they are as a person. There are so many other things distorting who should get hired or admitted already.

Then there’s the issue of who qualifies for affirmative action. If people self-identify, then people are going to judge others for self-identifying. It’s like an admission of needing more help, isn’t it? An admission that one wouldn’t be good enough on one’s own? Or if affirmative action is justified on the bases that certain groups have faced economic and social disparity and thus need some assistance, what about a member of that group that hasn’t faced those hardships? Should they be able to qualify? (Or what about a person not a member of the group who has faced those hardships?) There was an outcry against Elizabeth Warren for having listed herself as member of a minority group when she doesn’t appear to belong to the minority group and according to certain definitions she wouldn’t qualify. It comes back a bit to that question of who is Native enough or what definition counts? The waters get murky. And if a society or government or university is offering this hand-up to people who might need it why should we judge anyone for claiming it?

I remember hearing that the states in the USA with the most diverse populations have the worse social programs, possibly because people don’t want to help support others who they don’t view as like themselves. Social programs can be seen as a sort of collective insurance program. If people see it less as an insurance policy for people like themselves and more as assistance for others, they are less likely to support them. In the book Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, economist Joseph Heath states:

There are very few sights capable of undermining American support for welfare programs more quickly than that of a teenage girl, black of Hispanic, bouncing a baby on her knee, explaining in some strange ghetto slang just how proud she is to be a mother.

Mr. Heath goes on to talk about how having a child as a teenager drastically increases a person’s chances of living in poverty and thus is legitimately seen as irresponsible. He goes on to talk about how giving assistance is seen as increasing the chances that others will choose to do so but how the risks of leaving people without assistance is a bigger problem than the slight “moral hazard” of giving it. Leaving aside the questions of whether it really is a choice and what the motivating factors for teenage pregnancy are, I find it interesting that Mr. Heath specified a black or Hispanic teenager. Is there an added zip to people’s reaction if the teenager is not white? Would people judge her motives differently (perhaps focusing more on her responsibility in “choosing life” and less on the irresponsibility of getting pregnant in the first place) if she is white? Would they assume that the benefits that come with being white mean the teenager would have some responsible way of supporting the child and not be a drain on public assistance?

Here in my volunteer work with an anti-poverty organization I had someone tell me she prefers dealing with other natives than with white social workers. She said she’d have less to explain then and they’d be less likely to judge her. I felt so sorry when I heard that. I felt sorry that her experiences would have taught her that white people are more judging. Sorry that she feels white people are less able to understand her. Sorry that us white probably are less able to understand.

I don’t think statistics will convince people that affirmative action is still necessary, and although I desperately think the statistics are necessary, I think what we really need is to learn better ways of listening to each other’s stories. We need to listen and learn to understand and learn not to presume, not to guess what others motivations are or why certain things happened to them. We need to listen and learn to talk and learn to respond somehow. And yet I know if it was really that easy to do that people would have done it already. It isn’t that we’re all trying not to understand each other. We want to. But how do you learn to understand when someone else’s interpretation of their reality clashes with ones own? When you think their interpretation is inaccurate? (And we can’t simply put aside our own views and accept others as accurate either, or we’d have to accept the Texan students assessment of her university qualifications and the view of the university that says race wasn’t a consideration in her situation.) How do you learn to understand the experience of a member of a minority group, without trying to make that person as a representative of the minority group instead of an individual?  How do you get down to what the real differences in opinions and ideas and experiences really are?

I ‘d like to hope that at least a few of the issues in poetry of The Argument are no longer relevant. I hope no executives would feel the need anymore to ask a secretary (as described in one of the poems):

“Would you object tremendously
If your new boss turns out to be
A man of color?”

Yet I remember reading in Carolyn Jessop’s book Triumph about how the FLDS still teach racism to children, so much so that when the Yearning For Zion Enclosure was raided and the children moved into foster care, Ms. Jessop found herself explaining to the social workers that the children had been trained to object to taking orders from a person of color. So there’s probably other people quietly (and not so quietly) holding those same views. I’ve seen a picture on facebook supposedly of a Mitt Romney supporter wearing a t-shirt saying “let’s put the white back in the white-house.” I suspect that person would have trouble with having a boss of color.

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  • Liz

    I think that the thing to keep in mind with affirmative action is that if someone is looking for data, even the most objective is generated by the conventional education system who may be causing the inequality and, thus, may not be reliable.

    Further, regarding poverty, we used to be upper middle class and have dropped below the poverty line due to a combination of health and economics. I know people who poor bash and I struggle with whether or not to be the example who is “like them” in order to try to change their minds. While I am not embarrassed, I am not sure, due to health, that I have the energy to debate and debunk. I am pleased that people like you are paying attention to this issue.

    • christyk

      I definately think that the convential education system causes inequality, but does that then cause problems in their own data? I’m having trouble seeing how it would. Care to expand on your comment?

      Btw, your comment made my evening.

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