A Critique of Affirmative Action

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, the supreme court announced a non-decision decision on the issue of affirmative action by universities. The ruling itself makes no significant difference to the status quo, but it got me thinking about the issue. As regular readers know, I think economic and social mobility is very important. For this reason, I am opposed to affirmative action.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Isn’t the usual rationale for affirmative action the belief that it leads to greater social mobility for historically disfavored racial groups? That is indeed how affirmative action is often justified, but I do not think the argument holds. We assume that by giving preference to less qualified applicants from racial minorities we rectify inequities of opportunity, but what we really do is hide them.

I offer three separate but related reasons for opposing affirmative action:

  1. Racial Focus–Affirmative action as structured focuses on race, when class is the principle impediment to inter-generational economic advancement. By focusing on race rather than on the poverty that happens to be associated with race, affirmative action perpetuates racism.
  2. Too Little, Too Late–Affirmative action comes too late in the educational process to have any ameliorative effect on equality, while simultaneously reducing economic efficiency.
  3. Prevents Real Action–As a result of #2, affirmative action hides inequality of opportunity earlier in the education system without doing anything about it, creating the illusion that it is being addressed when no useful action has been taken. As a result, it perpetuates inequality.

I’d like to address each in turn.

Racial Focus:

It is undoubtedly the case that African-Americans have worse outcomes than other Americans:

The question is, why? Is it because employers and universities are racist, and refuse to take African-Americans, or is it because African-Americans tend to come from poor areas with weak schools? As we established the other day, all poor Americans have reduced opportunity for upward mobility. Someone born to a poor white family in a poor area with poor schools is quite disadvantaged, and someone born to a well-off black family in an affluent area with good schools is not really very disadvantaged at all. Why should we be trying to improve the opportunity of affluent African-Americans? It doesn’t make sense for the president’s children to have an advantage when applying to universities over poor white kids from substandard schools–Barack Obama agrees with that:

I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.

Many employers and universities are at this point so afraid of appearing racist that they will risk breaking the law in order to maintain diversity. Take UCLA–in 1996, the state of California outlawed affirmative action in its universities. Over the following 10 years, UCLA’s black population as a percentage of the total fell continuously:

UCLA attracted unfavorable attention in 2006 for its low number of black students, and as a result, it changed its admission policy so as to take into account an array of factors. They took into account whether or not a student was from a poor background, a bad school, or had parents who had not gone to college. The result was that African-American admission figures rose. This would suggest that the disadvantages many African-Americans suffer through are the result not of the color of their skin, but of the income of their parents. None of this is to say that racism no longer exists, or that blacks at the same income level as whites have perfectly equal opportunity, but class is far more powerful than race in determining economic outcomes. This jives with the polling data, which has shown a steady decline in openly racist attitudes, the kind of attitudes likely to see blacks denied opportunity purely on racial grounds:

By focusing so intently on race rather than income, we perpetuate the idea that the color of one’s skin matters. Making race matter, even in seemingly positive or impartial contexts, such as promoting diversity, only serves to reinforce the central premise of racism–that your skin color, your physical appearance as indicated by your genetics, says something about who you are as a person. An America that tries to get a certain portion of its university population to have darker skin than the rest is not an America in which people are not judged “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Schools should be entirely indifferent to racial percentages in and of themselves.

This would seem to suggest that affirmative action might still be justifiable if it were class-based rather than race-based, and indeed, that’s an argument I’ve read in several places around the internet lately. Nonetheless, I must disagree even with class-based affirmative action at the university level.

Too Little, Too Late:

The second problem with affirmative action, even when targeted against the universally disadvantaged poor of all racial descriptions, is that it comes too late in the game. By the time young people are applying for college, those whose potentials are going to be harmed by poverty have already been harmed, usually irrevocably. The teen pregnancies have happened or are happening, the gang affiliations have already started, the drug use and drug-dealing is well underway. If put a kid through 12 grades of poor schools, bad neighborhoods, and domestic disturbances, letting him get into college with poorer scores will hardly help. Most students who might have received the advantage will already be off the rails, and the remainder will go into college behind the other students academically.

We can see that by high school, there is already a large difference in performance on college-entrance exams:

Letting someone with an SAT score a couple hundred points lower than the norm into one’s university does not close this gap. Here we can see how even after being allotted places, the disadvantaged African-American students still disproportionately fail to graduate from college:

And long before they get this far, a disproportionate number of these disadvantaged students drops out of high school altogether:

Effectively, affirmative action is pushing students who have already fallen far behind to go to schools they are not prepared for. It sets students up to fail, and those students who do fail take places that otherwise might have gone to successful students, depressing the rate at which our universities produce capable, economically useful graduates.

We need to fix opportunity disparities not in the universities, but in the grade schools. It’s the high school drop out gap and the SAT gap that should be our concern, not the college entry gap. We’ve got to lay a level foundation for students of all economic backgrounds before we worry about what the ceiling looks like.

Prevents Real Action:

Affirmative action removes a symptom of the equality of opportunity problem (lack of diversity in the universities), but it does not cure that problem. When UCLA stopped advantaging racial minorities and its African-American demographic collapsed, that was not, as it was popularly thought of at the time, a negative reflection of poor selection methods. It was instead a reflection of the failure of California’s public schools to prepare poor, disadvantaged students for college. By appealing to affirmative action, we give ourselves a cheap out. We can say we are doing something for opportunity, when in reality what we are doing is ephemeral and too often ineffective. Too many disadvantaged people never make it far enough to benefit from affirmative action, and the remainder are often unprepared or face lifelong discrimination on the assumption that they could not have possibly earned their positions and qualifications on merit.

As a result, affirmative action at the university level perpetuates both inequality and racism. A much better approach would be to reorganize the way we operate our grade schools and high schools. We need to get poor kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into good schools.

How do we do this? We need to stop sending kids to schools based on geography. A school in a poor neighborhood should not have more poor students than a school in an affluent neighborhood has. Elementary, middle, and high schools should have quotas. Merit-based university admissions should be exclusively merit-based. There should be no difference in economic class between the students at a school located in the middle of an inner-city and a school located out in an affluent suburb. Bus the kids the extra distance as needed. The one thing we cannot do is precisely what we are presently doing–allow poor students to congregate in schools where no one really believes in their potential, only to offer them places at universities they’re not qualified to go to later on.