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February 24, 2003

Affirmative Action: An Education for Us All


Bob Herbert in the New York Times of February 24 spells out the logic behind affirmative action in an Op-Ed piece by. In it he makes the following rather oddly paired assertions:

A glance at the current challenges to affirmative action in higher education would show little more than the fact that a number of white applicants have asserted in court that they were illegally denied admission to college or law school because of preferences given to racial or ethnic minorities.

...The United States is a better place after a half-century of racial progress and improved educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities and women. We have all benefited and, and voluntary efforts to continue that progress, including the policies at Michigan, are in the interest of us all. [emphasis added].

I think it's true that “The United States is a better place after…improved educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities…” However, one would have a hard time arguing that the “white applicants who have asserted in court that they were illegally denied admission to college or law school” are wrong to feel that they may have benefited from affirmative action just a tad less than, perhaps, the racial or ethnic minority students that were admitted to the University of Michigan Law School. In fact, I suspect they probably feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick. Wouldn’t you?

My question is: why should the costs of a policy that Mr. Herbert argues benefits “us all” (by which he presumably means that this policy is in society’s best interest) be born by this particular set of individuals (i.e., the white students refused admission)—without any compensation? I notice Mr. Herbert doesn’t even try to make the case that these particular students were in any way personally responsible for racial discrimination aimed at minorities and ethnic groups. Nope, apparently they’re just society’s sacrificial lambs—too bad, boys and girls.

It would seem to me that affirmative action would have virtually no downside if the specifically “damaged” applicants were compensated for the harm being done to them. It would be fairly easy to calculate such damage, and for the University of Michigan to write a nice little check to each of them.

But that would interfere with the unmentioned but clearly implied emotional calculus of left-wing social programs. I mean, let’s face it, how many racial or ethnic minority individuals are ever going to the University of Michigan Law School? Only a few hundreds will attend out of tens of millions. So the issue is largely one of symbolism. I guess that symbolism is made a bit more emotionally gratifying when it involves the spectacle of somebody else getting screwed.

I guess these kids just need to suck it up—Mr. Herbert seems to need his pound of flesh. And the administration of the University of Michigan (who are not required to make any personal sacrifice here in order to practice “virtue”) intends to give it to him.



posted by Friedrich at February 24, 2003


Couldn't agree more! And that's another interesting question you implicitly raise -- how much is a society willing to spend on symbolism? (Ie., how important is a society's symbolism to itself.) Economics majors? Any guesstimates here? I have to say that one of my uninformed, freshman-year-level problems with economists is that they don't take on such questions.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 1:35 PM

What's the difference between symbolism and accountability?

Posted by: j.c. on February 24, 2003 1:47 PM

Hey J.C. -- I'm sure I'm being a dunderhead but I'm not following your question. "Accountability" in what sense?

For what little it's worth, I often find myself getting fascinated by such questions as "how much is a society willing to spend in order to feel good about itself?" Economy-minded people, I find, are prone to see excess, or something they call "inefficiency." And seeing it in those terms does have its virtues, lord knows. I tend to figure that that excess or ineffiency is paying for something, and when I try, in my lame way, to figure out what that might be, I tend to come up with terms like "symbolism." Putting aside the question of whether or not affirmative action is a good or bad policy, it's certainly an inefficient one. So what's being bought? Maybe the goodwill of a part of the population. Maybe a degree of self-regard (see! we're good, wellmeaning people!) I think economists are missing an opportunity when they picture the costs of such programs as simply being thrown away.

My deeper, completely uninformed hunch, one though that I find intuitively compelling, is that there's some relationship between the arts and symbolic expenses. Economically conceived-of, the arts are a species of symbolic expense -- I guess that's my hunch. So, for the sake of the arts, perhaps a degree of symbolic expense (usually thought of as inefficiency, and seen as bad) needs to be tolerated and built into the system, if only into the conceptual (and not strictly political) system.

But I'm still trying to polish that thought...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 2:25 PM

To my lights, symbolism is an empty gesture. With accountability, failing to uphold a policy might actually have repercussions.

For example, many cities address police brutatlity with citizen watchdogs groups. When it's merely symbolic, the group can't do anything but write reports and talk to the press. When there is accountability, the group can require an investigation, make sure records are included in the investigation, etc.

In real life, groups are not more effective because the police are accountable to them, but I think having a policy that faces the need for accountability still have value.

Posted by: j.c. on February 24, 2003 5:20 PM

Well, as the inimitable Steve Sailer has pointed out, there is a sort of "conservation of resentment" that applies. In a non-AA society, blacks will perceive themselves as being underrepresented at society's highest levels, and will therefore resent whites for oppressing them. In an AA world, the blacks get positions at the head of the table, but at the price of engendering white resentment.

So, the issue is: does the decrease in black resentment make up for the increase in white resentment? I don't think so, primarily because AA engenders new resentments amoung blacks, who (rightly) perceive that they are seen as unqualified "tokens" (even if they are, in fact, as qualified as whites). So, AA creates more resentment all around, and doesn't diminish the old. A lose-lose situation.

Anf of course, this doesn't even get into the fact that, as govt. programs are wont to do, AA has metastized to affect not just blacks (who at least have a plausible case for "historical wrongs" that need addressing), but any group that can be labled as "disadvantaged" (read: unqualified). So, the son of an illegal mexican immigrant (whose ancestors weren't even here to be oppressed by the white male hierarchy, and who technically should be deported, not educated at public expense) will be placed ahead of someone of Japanese descent whose father was actually put in a concentration camp by the government! Ain't this a great country?

Oh - and don't get too worked up about the U Mich case - it will have no effect whatsoever. If the Supremes do outlaw AA, the crafty administrators will find some way, any way, to circumvent it (as they have in California, for the most part). Administrators would rather put out their own eyes than gaze upon an all-white (and Asian, but they don't count) student body...

Posted by: jimbo on February 24, 2003 6:09 PM

For what it's worth, I heard an NPR interview with one of a group of retired military leaders (Schwarzkopf and Zinni were among 'em, but I don't remember who was speaking) who had filed a friend of the court brief in favor of U. Mich. The said that without racial preferences in recruiting at the military academies and in ROTC, the US military's ability to function would be seriously compromised. They referred to Viet Nam era problems caused by an officer class with 1-2% minority representation giving orders to an enlisted (well, drafted) force with a 30-40% minority component, saying it undermined discipline and morale and contributed to an "us vs them" mentality in the ranks. Of course, there were other morale problems in that war--but could they be right? And, if so, is there some other way to address the problem?

Posted by: Mike Snider on February 25, 2003 8:06 AM

I’m sorry to spoil the party, but the premises underlying this discussion and its anti-affirmative action conclusions are wrong, and they are wrong because based (it appears) on a caricatured notion of how the affirmative action process at the University of Michigan actually works. There are no specific applicants who can be identified as the victims of affirmative action, and the beneficiaries aren’t always identifiable either.

I am not familiar with the specifics of the U-M law school affirmative action policy, but I do know how the undergrad policy works. Applicants eligible for affirmative action consideration are given so many points, which are added to the points the applicant is granted for various other factors: grades, SAT scores, quality of high school attended, etc. The point scale runs, as I remember, from 0 to 150. (I had to learn the ins and outs of this process when helping a math-challenged colleague with a story on various aspects of U-M admissions procedures for an Ann Arbor paper we both work for.)

Anyway, the process works like this: almost nobody (except football players, etc.) who scores under 80 gets admitted; Almost everybody who scores over 130 is admitted. The applicants in the middle range go into a pool of applicants the admissions department scrutinizes, more or less one by one, in some detail. In filling the admitted class from this pool, they both look for individual features that may make the applicant a more viable candidate for admission than the rating system reveals--i.e., find the pick of the litter--and try to balance the class they are assembling for a number of factors, which include getting a fair share of students from all over Michigan as well as from various ethnicities. Various other factors are involved here, including, for example, getting a certain mix of students with projected majors in physics, English, engineering, etc. In other words, there are lots of institutional purposes--the most self-serving of which are “legacies” and the ability to play football--on the basis of which putatively “qualified” applicants are discriminated one from the other, none of them “fair” to the individuals who end up denied admission.

Moreover, the U-M routinely admits more than twice as many students as it can accommodate--most of those admitted end up going elsewhere. In other words, by definition more than half of those admitted are NOT the best X-number qualified students for the X-number of slots available in the incoming class.

In this context, it seems simply foolish to get all exercised about the supposed advantage a few minority applicants are being given. Affirmative action--at the U-M--does not get anyone admitted, though it does allow many minorities to be considered for admission who would otherwise have been overlooked.

And I can say from personal experience that this can be a good thing. I used to be a college professor myself, at Swarthmore College. I taught American literature there in the 70s. At that time Swarthmore had a (smallish) affirmative action program. One year, in my freshman class, I had an African American student from Pittsburgh. His first paper was awful--I had to stretch to give it a D. It read like an inebriated parody of academic writing, lots of big words tripping over each other, none of them really knowing what they were supposed to be doing there. It was torture grading it: trying to figure out what he might imaginably be trying to say so I could write comments suggesting how he might have said it. I remember spending over 2 hours on this 2-page paper.

Anyway, next paper--on Moby-Dick--4 pages, he gets an A. A no-brainer, pre-grade-inflation A. I was of course horrified: I assumed he had somebody else write it for him. So I asked him to see me in my office, and told him I was startled by his improvement. I didn’t accuse him of what I suspected, but I managed to draw him into a discussion of the issues raised in the paper, extending the discussion well beyond what was in the paper itself. His conversation was as good as the paper. He had actually written it! I was amazed. I later learned a little about his background--a ghetto kid who had been befriended and encouraged by the then NBA star Maurice Lucas. And he is the poster boy for affirmative action: a bright, motivated kid who’s been deprived of a good education but who is perfectly capable of performing to standards of scholarship his resume says are beyond him.

My problem with the U-M’s affirmative action is that it looks cynical to me. I might be wrong, but I get the sense that while it does no harm to anyone, it also does little good. I don’t think they search assiduously for diamonds in the rough like the kid I described. I think they simply follow practices that seem to work for making the U-M look good on its resume--and I’m not talking specifically or especially about the affirmative action here. To be honest, I don’t think that as an institution it’s especially interested in undergraduate education, any more than MacDonalds is interested in nutrition. And I don’t mean to single out the U-M on this score; this seems to me to be generally true of American higher education these days.

I don’t think most universities could answer this question in any kind of satisfactory way: How do you want to change your students during their time here, in ways that would be evident to them and to anyone else the day they graduate--without reference to whatever job they may use their diploma to get.

But I could be wrong.

Posted by: John Hinchey on February 25, 2003 5:06 PM

Mr. Hinchey: I appreciate your lengthy and thoughtful response. If you would care to go digging through our archives, I think you would see that you and I agree that universities are remarkably indifferent to undergraduate education (although your comparison with McDonalds is far more eloquent than anything I've managed.)

However, I think your discussion of how Michigan's affirmative action program works misses the point. If some of the applicants in the pool are getting extra points, then those applicants are being favored, and those who are pushed out of contention by that process are being disfavored. That's why the extra points are in there, to skew the decision making in favor of certain groups, e.g., football players.

I guess the larger questions involved here are (1) why the Michigan legislature leaves so much of this up to the university administration to determine, given the significant role of public funding in the Michigan university system, and (2) why we haven't seen legal challenges to the non-racial and ethnic-preference policies of state universities (one would think these would be rather vulnerable to "equal protection of the laws" arguments.)

Again, that's why I support a "buy out" system for non-academic preferences--every admitted student should submit a dollar figure for how much they would demand in order to NOT go to the U. of M. (or other school.) Thus, to make room for football players or minority students, the school would "buy out" enough places for them. That would provide an interesting piece of transparency for how much these non-academic agendas cost, and eliminate resentment of these preferences.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 25, 2003 6:00 PM

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