Monday, August 4, 2008

Postracial indeed -- Obama's take on affirmative action

Debates about affirmative action have always made me uncomfortable. I believe in fairness, mainly in the form of meritocracy -- equality of opportunity, not outcome. However, it's also obvious that opportunities are not equal in our society, and a lot of those inequalities are racially distributed. Our massive achievement gaps are proof of that.

My (limited) experience suggests that in most parts of America, soft discrimination is a much bigger problem that overt KKK-style bigotry. I've always worried that racial affirmative action perpetuates the stereotypes it is meant to compensate for. Also, many black kids are born into well-educated, affluent families and it seems unfair to give them a bonus intended for the disadvantaged. So in the big pro/con debate of affirmative action, I've leaned con.

Of course, as a half-white, half-Asian child of upper-middle class parents with advanced degrees, it's simply not PC for me to speak against affirmative action. What do I know about race and discrimination?

So three cheers to Barack Obama for saying what I couldn't, as reported in Sunday's NY Times.

During a presidential debate in April, Mr. Obama said his two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, “who have had a pretty good deal” in life, should not benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college, particularly if they were competing for admission with poor white students.

Read the whole article for details; the main idea is that Obama is on record as saying that affirmative action should be based on socioeconomic status instead of race. His daughters have grown up privileged; they don't need or deserve affirmative action.

This take on affirmative action sits a lot better with my conscience. It shares opportunity fairly and broadly, but doesn't reinforce racial stereotypes. I don't know the details, but I like it.

I don't know how this idea will play out in public opinion, but I'm hopeful. Two years ago, Michigan went through a similar debate on Proposal 2, a constitutional initiative to make "preferential treament on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin" illegal in the state. Campaigns on both sides fought angry and dirty. I quietly supported the Prop 2 for the reasons above. Liberal newspapers around the state castigated moderates making essentially the same argument that Obama is making. Affirmative action played out as a divisive polarizing issue.

This time, the combination of messenger and message seems to have some resonance. (See the same NY Times article for some details.) If Obama pushes, he may have the reach and credibility to reshape take the affirmative action debate beyond race -- a real milestone for American politics.

We'll see how it goes, but so far on this issue I think Obama is living up to his potential for running a truly post-racial campaign.

PS - The picture in this post is borrowed from I have no idea what their content is like. Go Google images!


Erin said...

admittedly, i agree with a lot of your opinions. maybe because i hear them so much. :) but i really agree with you on this one. interesting article - thanks!

Ben Peters said...

thanks for this. like-minded (and over-privileged) individuals all of us so far.

It may not be this simple, but then again it may: preferential treatment policies should apply only to questions of class. (Let the ethnicity, gender, and any other background divides fall where they may.)

Kara said...

I think both race and SES should count. There has been a lot of psych literature showing that black students (and Latino students), regardless of SES, fall to stereotype threat, impacting their educational performance (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995; Kellow & Jones, 2008). This can be explained through theory of intelligence, where Black students believe that intelligence is unchanging and that effort won't help them. This obviously has negative repercussions. There is also a lot of literature on teachers treating black students with either pity, not believing in their capabilities, or stereotyping them, all of which are extremely harmful (e.g., Roscigno and Ainsworth-Darnell, 1999; Chang & Demyan, 2007). In other studies that have looked at both race and SES, often SES explains (mediates) SOME of the gap in achievement, but not all (e.g., A. J. Orr, 2003). I think it's dangerous to say race does not matter at all, that it is just SES.

Perhaps the point system for college admission can be a case by case process, where students are given the opportunity to write about how race has impacted their life. On my Michigan application I believe I had such a thing, where I was given a paragraph or two to talk about something that has made me diverse or a hardship I've faced or something along those lines.

However, SES certainly plays a role and I think it should be greater emphasized in the college application process. White, rural, low-SES, first generation college goers are one of the most rare groups to go to college (in terms of % of that group who end up in college). This group is much LESS aware than black students that they can use their position to their advantage. Colleges are often very understanding and recognize students who are very poor or first generation, regardless of race.

Until race evens out according to test scores, just like gender recently evened out (in terms of academic grades), I think affirmative action is a good choice, as long as its given equal weight with SES and done in a way that adds some quality to it. Obviously this would require more effort on the part of the school to collect and judge essays, but it would also be a fairer process.

If Obama raised his children in a different city than Chicago, perhaps somewhere in West Virginia, his daughters may have faced different challenges, ones based on race. I still love Obama though and I'm pumped for him.

Anonymous said...

Just so you know Obama believes that race preferences should exist in addition to economic-based-affirmative action. He strenuously opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and even cut a radio ad against it and is opposed to the Civil Rights Initiatives (same one that passed in MI) that are on the ballot in CO, AZ, and NE this election.


Kara said...

Okay, good to know! Thanks.

Abe said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

A quick response to Kara:

I'm not trying to say that racial stereotypes are gone -- I'm saying that affirmative action probably contributes to them.

I want to distinguish between "hard racism" (i.e. outright bigotry and KKK-style white supremacy) and "soft racism" (e.g. pity and lowered expectation for minority students). Let's say, for the sake of argument, that our society has 99% overcome hard racism. This is probably not true yet, but I think we're getting there, slowly.

If most of the discrimination left is the soft kind, then what effect does affirmative action have on it? In the short run, it helps minority candidates get into better schools and jobs. But it also sends a strong message to everyone involved -- the admissions officer, the white kid who doesn't get the into her preferred college, and the minority kid himself -- that the minority candidate is somehow inferior.

Furthermore, if the white candidate would have been more able, this belief is self-reinforcing. Coming into a better-prepared cohort, the minority student is likely to struggle to keep up. People close to the situation will see that struggle. Whatever their views about social justice, their day-to-day experience with racial competence will be skewed unfavorably.

Now let me get this straight before I get hate mail. I'm *not* saying that minority students are inherently less competent. I'm *not* saying that all minority students struggle to keep up with white students. I'm *not* saying that we shouldn't try to compensate for systemic problems that disadvantage non-white students.

What I'm saying is that race-based affirmative action sends strong messages that reinforce racial stereotypes and lead to soft discrimination. On balance, it puts people in situations that tend to confirm those racial expectations. It works individually, but not in aggregate. It works in the short term, but as policy to reduce discrimination, it's ultimately self-defeating.

PS - Okay, that wasn't so quick, but I couldn't figure out how to get the idea across in less words.

Dave and Margaret said...

David Here.

I think you make a good case for the reduction of race based affirmative action and I tend to agree with you. Though, as a half white half Caucasian male I feel uncomfortable admitting it. :)

Another unintended consequence of affirmative action may have been to increase racism towards well educated blacks. Education helps signal to employers certain things about us. Perhaps the most obvious signal that a degree from an elite university gives employers is that out of hundreds of applicants you were deemed qualified to attend the university.

If the selection process is based on criteria other than merit it makes that signal less meaningful. Clarence Thomas famously claimed that his Yale Law degree was "not worth the paper it was printed on" because he couldn't get a job after graduation. Firms just assumed he wasn't as qualified as other Yale grads because he was black and was therefore admitted under a racial quota and not merit. Thus affirmative action may have increased, not reduced, discrimination against minorities in America and made success more difficult to achieve for meritorious minorities.

Kara said...

The point of affirmative action is not to put less able people with more able people. It would be wrong to assume people who have benefited from affirmative action are less able, and it would be wrong in a high majority of the cases. The whole point of the movement recognized that a black person who is just as able as a white person may have to work even harder, or be even more able, to overcome certain barriers in order to get an equal resume as a white person. Therefore, affirmative action realizes that both parties may have equal abilities, but this one party needs recognition that their ability won't shine as brightly on their resume, or through their grades.

Another big misnomer is that our education system is based on merit. There are thousands of reasons why I am the way I am, things out of my control, including my parents' education, prenatal care, structured activities they signed me up for, full health care, going to a private school, and so on. I was at a full advantage to succeed in life, and yes I think I tried hard, but I didn't get to where I was today based purely on me. Just as many people recognize that SES will strongly determine your outcome, so will race. Education is not based on merit. A much higher majority of students at Ivy Leagues came from money than students at community colleges.

It is unfortunate, but it sounds like the firms that wouldn't hire Clarence Thomas were uneducated about how affirmative action works. As stated in the previous post, it would be wonderful if our selection process was based on merit, but it isn't because we live in a stratified society. Most employers or college admission committees would be wise to recognize that there are other factors explaining why people have the "resume" that they do. That's why so many schools are now dropping the value placed on standardized tests, looking more towards research experience or letters of recommendation. Affirmative action, based on a wide variety of factors, is simply trying to level out the playing field by recognizing that equal ability looks very different in terms of what a person has to show for it, because of the society that we live in.

Civil rights based on race is still a very new phenomena. Perhaps in 2 or 3 more generations the playing field will be leveled, there will no longer be enough significant soft racism so that equal ability will yield equal grades, and then affirmative action will no longer be needed. If you think about it, many of our mothers benefited years ago from affirmative action for women, and today the playing field is a lot more equal across genders.

Abe said...

Kara -
Good comment -- you're pointing out a big ambiguity in the way I phrased my last comment.

When I say that minority students might be "less able" than others in their cohorts, I don't mean to say that they have less potential ability. I mean exactly the same thing you're saying: that my ability at any point in time is the product of my personal "potential," combined with the environment that has influenced me so far. I think we all agree that children are all born with the same "potential," but that societal factors influence their "ability" later on.

You can pick different words if you like. Part of the reason these things are so hard to discuss is that English just doesn't have good words for a lot of the concepts.

Back to my main point: in a world of soft discrimination, affirmative action is intended to help minority candidates make up for societal barriers that have held them back in the past. For example, because of the unfair way our schools are set up, many minority children are pushed through systems that don't help them realize their potential. They often graduate with fewer marketable skills and less impressive resumes than their affluent counterparts coming out of prep schools. From the perspective of the jobs and colleges the minority students apply to, it looks like they have less "ability" than the white students, but this difference is the fault of a stratified school system -- not the students themselves.

I think we basically agree on all of this so far. Equal potential -- unfair, stratified society -- apparent gaps in "ability."

The part that we're disagreeing about is whether race-based affirmative action solves the problem or not. I think the important question to ask is where discrimination comes from.

My argument is that affirmative action reinforces stereotypes and discrimination. To flip your comment around: unfortunately, proponents of affirmative action are uneducated about the way that firms (like the ones that wouldn't hire Clarence Thomas) work.

Most organizations care more about ability than potential. Would-be employees signal their ability with resumes (like Justice Thomas' degree from Yale), but employers can also take race into account. Now, in principle, race shouldn't matter. But in a system with affirmative action, a degree held by a white candidate and a degree held by a minority candidate don't necessarily mean the same thing. Firms will likely place less value on the minority candidate's degree, because they are a weaker signal of ability.

In Justice Thomas's case, that led employers to discount the value of his credentials and turn him away. In other words, affirmative action caused discrimination against a very high-potential minority candidate.