Archive for the 'race' Category

What do we support when we support affirmative action?

August 13, 2009

Alternate post title: When all you have is access to the GSS dataset, everything starts to look like a GSS variable.

To expand on my reply to Jeremy under this post, it is important to distinguish between support for (or opposition to) affirmative action in principle and support or opposition concerning concrete affirmative action programs or policies. I believe that support for affirmative action is funnel-shaped: many Americans are, to steal from George Orwell,

… the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of [affirmative action], who has the brains to see that [affirmative action] would ‘work’, but who in practice always takes to flight when [affirmative action] is mentioned.

Fewer, but still many Americans – “a plurality, if not a slim majority” – will confess their support to affirmative action in some general fashion, the vaguer the better. Then the funnel continues narrowing. Fewer support affirmative action policies, such as quotas or preferential hiring, and by the time you get down to cases, such as the misadventures of Ricci and Co. in Connecticut, the opposition to affirmative action seems insurmountable.

I would argue that this isn’t just a matter of tricky wording on survey questions. Affirmative action policies often reflect a general desire to even out the playing field, rather than any precise or reliable data about what works or will be popular. As a result, I believe, there is a group out there of people who would support some sort of affirmative action program(s), but may oppose specific manifestations of affirmative action, particularly in high-profile cases such as Ricci, or, earlier, the University of Michigan’s infamous affirmative action system for undergrads.

Somewhere out there is a data set better suited to addressing the empirical questions of whether this group of affirmative action proto-supporters exists, how big it is, and how much influence it might wield. Until then, all I’ve got is this half-baked analysis of data from the 2006 General Social Survey. I looked at the results for two items: one asking respondents to indicate their support for preferential hiring and promotion of blacks, and another asking respondents to indicate their support for government aid to blacks. Throughout, I make the assumption that the latter item represents a (more) general principle of affirmative action, while the former represents a (more) concrete policy or set of policies. The wording of the two questions is as follows:

(Preferential hiring)
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?

(Government aid)
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?

Filtering the data for cases that have valid responses to both items, I obtained the two following tables, breaking down the frequencies of each response to the two questions. (Click for readable size.)


Preferential hiring


Government aid

Forfeiting originality, here is how I interpreted this data in my earlier comment:

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 … 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.

Mere hours after I wrote this, I realized that there were probably more than 9 people in the sample who supported the principle but opposed the policy. The hypothesis I should have been testing was whether more people favored aid and opposed preferences than favored preferences and opposed aid. Given my limited toolkit, I reached straight for a crosstabulation of the two variables:


Crosstab of “preferential hiring” and “government aid,” column percentages

First things first – there is a clear (and statistically significant) positive correlation between support for preferential hiring and support for government aid. However, in the cells which buck this correlation (along the counterdiagonal) there does appear some evidence of the phenomenon I have been suspecting. To wit: 99 respondents (10.54%) support government aid but oppose preferential hiring, while only 23 respondents (2.45%) oppose government aid while supporting preferential hiring. This result is slightly more exciting than the “1%” comparison of the separate frequencies tables above.

Again, running with the assumption that “special [government] treatment” is more of a principle and less of a policy than “preferential hiring and promotion,” this analysis seems to lend some credibility to the existence of a layer of “proto-support” for affirmative action: individuals who favor the spirit and aims of affirmative action programs, but may disagree with the implementation. To wring some implications out of this mess:

  • As above, we must be aware of the difference between support for a principle and support for a policy. As far as affirmative action goes, recognizing that there are people who favor the former and object to the latter is crucial. This means that not every defense of an affirmative action policy needs to go down as if the overarching principles are under attack. Particularly, we should reach out to anyone who might be a proto-supporter – perhaps even working with them to reform affirmative action policies so that they might become effective and palatable.
  • Taking a broader view, however, any stratum of proto-support for affirmative action seems wedged between much heftier blocks of true believers. Those who reject the idea of affirmative action may or may not be swayed by arguments about racial inequality, but they will almost certainly not be persuaded to like affirmative action policies so long as they believe their backing principles are false.
  • I suspect that tailoring the affirmative action message to these different constituencies is harder than it might seem. Tweaking and rebranding affirmative action programs might appeal to the proto-supporters, but would further convince the diehard opponents that affirmative action is being “shoved down their throats.” On the other hand, speaking directly to the roots of the hardcore opposition – “racism, ignorance, selective observation” – is likely to leave the proto-supporters feeling spurned and insulted.
  • And that’s all the original and unoriginal opinions on the matter that this no-statistical-package-having blogger cares to share at present. I should add, as I had originally replied to Jeremy,

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

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    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.

    But wait … there’s more!

    August 8, 2009

    Bob Herbert has a way of writing columns that pretty much sum up all the commentary I could possibly want to make about a given current event. His piece on murderer George Sodini was no exception:

    I was reminded of the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a rampage at the university in 2007. While Cho shot males as well as females, he was reported to have previously stalked female classmates and to have leaned under tables to take inappropriate photos of women. A former roommate said Cho once claimed to have seen “promiscuity” when he looked into the eyes of a woman on campus.

    Soon after the Virginia Tech slayings, I interviewed Dr. James Gilligan, who spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts and as a professor at Harvard and N.Y.U. “What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal,” he said, “is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.”

    Comparison to the Tech murders? Check. Acknowledgment that America is steeped in a culture of violence? Check. Condemnation of Sodini’s infantile but all-too-common strain of misogyny? Check. Focusing on power as a key concept in contextualizing this horrific crime? … Nope.

    Herbert follows the lead of feminist bloggers in framing Sodini’s murders exclusively as a matter of destructive misogyny. (Is there any other kind?) His conclusion reads:

    We would become much more sane, much healthier, as a society if we could bring ourselves to acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the absurdly easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions.

    For comparison, here’s Jill at Feministe:

    Sodini was clearly an unbalanced and aggressive man who fixated on women and blamed them for his problems. The same cultural misogyny that enabled Sodini to blame women for his own social ineptitude and aggression also underwrites “The Game,” and informs people like Roissey’s interactions with women. It glorifies male dominance and relies on male entitlement.

    On one level, it is painfully obvious that Sodini’s acts were a manifestation of a violent hatred of women. But something doesn’t quite add up here: was misogyny all that caused Sodini’s rampage? As Jill Tubman notes, such accounts tend to ignore that Sodini’s racism seemed as powerful as his misogyny, and that his targets were just as likely to have been black men:

    Clearly [Sodini] was deeply troubled. But I’m not sure that insane really covers it this time. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to kill himself and take his ex-girlfriend and a bunch of young white “bruthr”-banging “hoez” with him (in his sick mind). … This is the part of the dark secret lurking in surburbia/disturbia and should be the stuff of all our nightmares: the intense racial anxiety, confusion, fear and rage some whites are feeling & how they plan to express it.

    The point is not to discount the role Sodini’s misogyny played in spurring his acts, or to sweep under the rug the acuteness of violence against women. Rather, it is to see Sodini and his ilk in full: men who are disgruntled not only against women, but also against minorities, immigrants, people of different religions, and on and on. And what seems to stand at the origin of this hateful cascade is power, or more precisely the lack thereof.

    How could have something as nebulous as “lack of power” precipitated mass murder? Certainly, Sodini fulfilled all the requirements for privilege: white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, etc. However, judging by his blog, Sodini didn’t feel very privileged. In fact, right up until pulling the guns out of his gym bag, he more or less had been letting the world roll right over him:

    No matter how many changes I try to make, things stay the same. …

    I predict I won’t survive the next layoff. That is when there is no point to continue. RIght now, life is bearable and I can get by indefinitely. Something bad must happen. The paycheck is all I have left. The future holds nothing for me. …

    It is difficult to live almost continuously feeling an undercurrent of fear, worry, discontentment and helplessness. I can talk and joke around and sound happy but under it all is something different that seems unchangable and a permanent part of my being. I need to realize the details of what I never accomplished in life and to be convinced the future is merely a continuation of the past – WHICH IT ALWAYS has been. (emphasis added)

    From this text, it appears that what was eating George Sodini, above all, was his perceived lack of power. He couldn’t get what he wanted – one of “30 million desirable women” – and, moreover, saw no way towards getting what he wanted. How his mind ran with that thought to the conclusion of murdering innocent people is chilling and tragic, but it doesn’t tell us about the roots of this social dysfunction.

    I think – and this is where this post moves into the territory of unsubstantiated opinion – that the democratization of power in society has had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a class of people who feel entitled to power, but for whatever reason are unable to claim it. A graduation speech by Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind:

    Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise.

    This isn’t quite genuine “Free Enterprise” we’re dealing with here, but the idea is similar. Some men, mostly white, but sometimes not, can’t get what they feel they deserve. They might be anti-social, emotionally stunted, undateable or unemployable, but in their minds all they see is society’s unfair rejection of their claim to power, and power’s fruit – success. They might seek escape in weird subcultures, but, shamefully often, they reach for violence as a desperate means to attain fleeting power.

    The difference between this perspective on Sodini’s crime and its interpretation as “strictly” misogynistic is subtle, but I think it matters. By the latter account, if somehow someone could have re-educated Sodini out of his misogyny, he might have never gone in for mass murder. But as I see it, if it’s not one thing, it’s going to be another for his type: Sodini would have channeled his perceived powerlessness into hating, and possibly killing, someone else. Steve Albini, who started his career impersonating psychopaths with shocking accuracy, captures this sentiment best:

    I started out hating myself and when I’m through
    I’ve gotta have something to hate, and I guess it’s you
    Man’s gotta have something to hate, guess I’ll do
    And when I’m through with myself, I’ll start on you.