Affirmative Action: It's Counterproductive

By Clegg, Roger | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action: It's Counterproductive


Clegg, Roger, The World and I


We have to start by defining terms. Conservatives don't oppose some kinds of affirmative action--like aggressive antidiscrimination measures, or broadening outreach and recruitment in race-neutral ways--but they do oppose the use of preferences based on race, ethnicity, or sex. Such discrimination was never a good idea, and it certainly isn't now.

While we do not have a colorblind society, we have made enormous progress in a very short period. The best way to ensure continued progress is to declare victory in the civil rights war, enforce our antidiscrimination laws evenhandedly, and get on with our national life.

The real problems faced by American society have nothing to do with discrimination, and the use of preferences makes race relations worse, not better. The obvious costs of preferences-their unfairness to workers, students, and small businesses, in particular; the precedent they set for "permissible" discrimination; the resentment and stigmatization they cause; the economic and human costs of mismatching people and positions--outweigh any conceivable benefits. And the more institutionalized the use of preferences becomes, the harder it will be to get rid of them.

The defenders of preferences are stubborn, but their arguments are few--I had to stretch to make 10--and weak. Here is what they argue and why they are wrong.

1. A preference "is just one factor." Either race, ethnicity, or sex influences a decision, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then why consider it at all? If it does, then in those cases certain people are getting something (and someone else is not getting something) because of their melanin content, where their ancestors came from, or their gender. That's unfair.

Always put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine someone told you: "True, I prefer whites over nonwhites, but I use race as only one of many factors. I also consider the person's grades, test scores, economic background; that someone isn't white works against them only in really close cases." Everyone would agree that was still discrimination. If you use race (or sex) as a factor, even one of many factors, you're discriminating. That's true regardless of which race or sex you're discriminating against.

In any event, race is often an overwhelming factor. According to Harvard Professor Stephan Thernstrom, for instance, "among the most selective and prestigious [law] schools, 7.5 times as many black students were admitted as would have been the case if academic qualifications alone had been taken into account." The Center for Equal Opportunity has documented similar discrepancies in undergraduate admissions.

2. Only "qualified" applicants are given preferences. The issue is not whether the winning applicant is in some absolute sense "qualified." If you use race (or sex) to select a less qualified applicant over a more qualified one, you're discriminating.

Again, put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine someone told you: "I'd never select an unqualified white over a qualified nonwhite. It's just that when there are two qualified applicants and the nonwhite is more qualified than the white, I might select the white despite that." Not very reassuring to a nonwhite, is it? The people who were admitted to law schools when they were segregated were all "qualified." But this was still discrimination. It was still unfair to those who were discriminated against.

Besides, it is not clear that preferences are given only to people who are even minimally qualified. There are, for instance, dramatic differences in the graduation rates between those belonging to groups who are given preferential treatment by a given university and those who are not, as well as dramatic differences in their respective rates of passing bar exams (for lawyers) and board certifications (for doctors).

3. We have preferences for children of alumni, so why not race preferences? We didn't fight a civil war over alumni preferences. …

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