Scoring Affirmative Action

August 12, 2009

Jeremy Levine, writing for the outstanding Social Science Lite, has this to say about his uncle’s brush with reverse discrimination:

According to my uncle, his interviewer immediately apologized as he entered the room. ‘Look, I hate to say this,’ the interviewer said. ‘But there’s no way we’re going to be able to hire you. If you were a woman or black, I’d hire you on the spot. You are totally qualified, but we’ve got to fill our quotas.’ Naturally, my uncle was none too pleased, commenting plainly (but forcefully) that acts of “reverse discrimination” are unfair. I did my best to defend affirmative action policies, discussing their historical necessity, noting their negligible affect on white male employment, and even waxing philosophical about the entitlement associated with staking claim and ownership over falsely constructed “spots” in colleges or the workforce. It was all to no avail, though. Cliché as the phrase is, my uncle was “passed up” for the job, and there wasn’t much I could say. …

See, claiming reverse discrimination is a lot like recounting your golf score. It’s always the one or two bad rounds that leave the deepest, most painful impressions. You always remember the bogey on the 9th hole, but never the birdie on the 10th. Somehow, the abundance of good holes are taken for granted, while the one or two missteps are amplified and taken as indicative of the entire round. Sure, my uncle remembers getting passed up for the job with the University of Michigan—an event that (probably) happened the way he said it did. But, in the process of recounting this single experience, he forgot about a lifetime of job interviews in which he directly benefited from his whiteness or his gender.

I’m a fan of affirmative action, but Levine’s scoring system rubs me the wrong way. By this metaphor, we can simply tally up the successes and failures of two individuals – one white, one black – and, when their “life scores” are equivalent, we will know affirmative action has succeeded. Correspondingly, so long as their “life scores” – educational attainment, success in the labor force, wealth accumulation, etc. – remain different, we know just what to do: slap a handicap on the “higher-scoring” individual that would level the playing field. That would be the crude affirmative action program which had tripped up Levine’s uncle.

With apologies to Keva Silversmith, sometimes golf isn’t the sport most metaphorically applicable to life. In the case of affirmative action, I think we’re dealing with something more akin to a poorly-run powerlifting meet. One competitor shows up armed with a singlet and a pair of Chuck Taylors; another – in the latest quintuple-ply squat suit, spring-loaded bench shirt, and knee wraps that could contain a small nuclear explosion. Both are expected to perform their best on the platform. At the end of the day, the geared lifter blows the raw lifter’s total out of the water. Now what?

The geared lifter in this example is the archetypal “privileged applicant,” and his equipment stands for all the accoutrement of privilege. The raw lifter, if you will, is then the “underprivileged applicant,” and the difference between the lifters’ scores is – well, you can figure it out. In any case, here’s the issue: obviously, pitting the two against one another as is is unfair to the latter. What is not so obvious is how we might overcome this unfairness. Here’s what won’t work:

1. Stripping privilege away from the privileged applicant. It’s impossible, from a public policy standpoint, to retroactively “cancel” privilege. It might work in theory, but there is no practical way to do it.

2. Forbidding the privileged applicant from drawing on his privilege. Again, another option that sounds nice, but even in the most ruthlessly objective selection processes, privilege has a way of giving its holders a boost.

3. Handicapping the privileged applicant in the selection process. This is the instance of reverse discrimination that Levine recounts. The problem is that, unlike golf, life offers no clear way to identify the right handicap for each player. Here the powerlifting counter-metaphor comes in handy: no one knows how much supportive gear adds to lifters’ totals, since this number depends on many different factors. Hence, perfectly fair competition of geared against raw lifters is not practical, since any handicap on the former is bound to be inaccurate and arbitrary. This goes double for affirmative action programs. We can tell that (most) white applicants have advantages over (most) black applicants that have nothing to do with their qualification for the position. But what we can’t tell is just how big this advantage is for any specific white applicant – let alone “white applicants” as a group. That’s why, at the end of the day, the specifics of many affirmative action programs are indefensible: these programs are written from a general aim to overcome privilege, rather than from specific information about the advantage privilege confers.

For all this, can we even have affirmative action programs that are both fair and effective? I believe so. The key is to honor the principle of fair treatment. It is not fair to turn an applicant away on the basis of his race, no matter how this would affect the year-end Diversity Report. On the other hand, it is perfectly fair to assist underprivileged applicants before, during, and after the selection process, that they might accumulate at least some of the advantages enjoyed by their more-privileged co-workers. By extension, it is perfectly fair to target underprivileged communities to help their members with education, job search, homeownership, and so on.

I suspect that many other supporters of affirmative action won’t like my take on it. They might rightly point out that this offers no guarantee of equal opportunity – to say nothing of equal outcome. But they would forget that equal opportunity isn’t as simple as having the same golf handicap. Under the reign of equal opportunity, everyone would have more or less the same shot at success, but owing to time and chance, some individuals would still come out way ahead. Regardless of how it is written, the successful affirmative action program will be that which preserves this individual variation in outcomes, while minimizing (in this case) the corresponding racial differential.


4 Responses to “Scoring Affirmative Action”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    This is a solid commentary, and I appreciate the discourse.

    I just want to clarify that my golf analogy was less about explaining the need/impetus for Affirmative Action policies, and more as an attempt to explain and understand white fear and apprehension associated with claiming “reverse discrimination” in the face of Affirmative Action programs. If I were to make a case for AA, I probably wouldn’t use any analogies at all, and stick to more statistically verified conclusions re: inequality. Not sure if that would be effective–I’m just saying that’s probably what I’d do.

    The idea is to explain why whites oppose AA so vehemently, and I wrote (and think) that it’s because some have had real experiences that cloud their vision of all the times they’ve benefited (invisibly) from their race/class/gender/hometown.

    As for convincing them about the merits of AA, well, if I knew how to do that I probably wouldn’t be enduring graduate school right now.

    (thanks for the write-up)

  2. grandmute Says:

    I apologize if I have misrepresented your post. That said, a lot of people do seem to think of affirmative action as “simply” handicapping the more privileged, and ignore the difficulties of devising and implementing the appropriate handicaps. Too frequently, this results in good intentions bearing rotten fruit – concrete affirmative action policies that please no-one and often fail to achieve their stated goals.

    Now, obviously, some – in fact, many – whites oppose affirmative action vehemently, as you write, by some combination of racism, ignorance, selective observation, and other types of faulty thinking. But what about those who actually favor affirmative action in principle, but disagree with the details? I know, this sounds too incredible to be true, but have a look at these numbers from the 2006 GSS.

    The first question is worded,

    Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?

    The results for the first question are in this table.

    The second question is worded:

    Some people think that [blacks] have been discriminated against for so long that the government has a special obligation to help improve their living standards. Others believe that the government should not be giving special treatment to [blacks] . Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you made up your mind on this?

    And the results are here.

    (Stats note: I filtered the cases to only those that include valid responses to both questions.)

    So what’s going on here? By the most conservative interpretation, nine more people in the sample (1%) support generic “government aid for blacks” than the more specific (but still very vague) “preferential hiring and promotion.” More likely, this difference is greater, since the aid question included a “middle-ground” option (AGREE WITH BOTH), but the preferential hiring question did not.

    What this says to me is A.) that our best chance at broadening support for affirmative action is to reach out to the 1% (but probably more) in the middle who are sympathetic to the principle but hostile to a specific program (e.g. quotas, or more recently Michigan’s infamous 20 points). Sometimes, the solution will lie in modifying the affirmative action program under consideration rather than demonizing its opponents. Also, B.) that arguments in favor of affirmative action must be made differently for the principle than for specific programs: general arguments about chronic racial inequality may sway people’s minds on the principle, but they will likely win few new allies for the programs.

    Of course, I could be entirely wrong and misdirected about this, and twisting the data beyond recognition, but that’s for you to decide.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Nah, you didn’t misrepresent the post – you just used it as a launching pad to discuss the more pressing policy concern re: actual implementation and acceptance of AA. It’s a good discussion to have.

    Ok, so in regard to the GSS data – those questions were added at by Larry Bobo, a sociologist/social psychologist here at Harvard. He also has a bunch of similar questions in the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, though I don’t know if these data are publicly available. (though, if you’re still in school, you might be able to get them. Sidebar, shoot me an email or Tweet so I know whos blog this is!).

    So the point you make is expressed by Bobo and a couple co-authors in a chapter of Bobo’s co-edited “Urban Inequality.” Simply put, their data showed that whites were much more likely to support job training programs for minorities as opposed to quotas and “preferences.” Their conclusion, echoed by others in the field, is to re-frame AA as “affirmative opportunity.” The rationale is that there’s a cognitive association being made between “affirmative action” and other racial prejudices that the term has lost utility. Still, whites are likely to accept certain targeted programs, if framed in a way that puts them at ease.

    Still, being at UofM in ’06 when AA was banned by a 60-40% margin, I have my doubts if this is even possible. We (supporters of AA) had our talking points, trying to re-frame how people though of AA, but it was to no avail.

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