Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Diversity and Racism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Today most schools justify giving an extra boost to minorities under the guise of having a diverse student body. Federal courts have concurred with this reasoning. The Supreme Court in Gratz found that diversity is a compelling state interest and if the preference scheme is narrowly tailored, granting benefits solely on the basis of race or ethnicity is not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

I just finished reading Richard Posner's The Economics of Justice. The book deals with a number of issues, and the last fifty pages focus on discrimination and affirmative action, which he properly terms "reverse discrimination." Posner is not completely against affirmative action, but argues strongly against the diversity rationale.

His primary premise is that discrimination today is mainly the result of high information costs, which causes rational actors to use proxies as a basis for judgments. Put into English, his argument is that people are racist because it involves too much energy to determine if someone has the favorable or unfavorable trait that one is looking for. For example, let's say someone doesn't like loud people. I don't think anyone would call him a bigot for not wanting to be around loud people. Now, let's say he assumes Black people are loud because he's seen a few loud Blacks in the past. That would be stereotyping and wrong.

Now the diversity argument works the same way. Schools aren't arguing they want a certain percentage of Blacks because of their skin color; that would make as much sense as giving preference to people with buck teeth. What they are assuming is that Blacks have special qualities or experiences, and those attributes would contribute to the educational experience of the student body. They also use race as a proxy, because it involves too much time and energy to find out if each Black individual fits the mold.

Let's use an example. School A wants to weed out lazy people. That's a perfectly legitimate interest, both constitutionally and morally. Based on previous experience they've determined (incorrectly) that Blacks are more prone to laziness and decide to limit the number of Blacks allowed admission into the school. School B wants a diverse student body, with some having been the victims of discrimination. Based on history they decide to grant preferences to Blacks.

What's the difference? In both cases the underlying trait they wish to focus on is perfectly acceptable. In both cases the school stereotypes for administrative reasons (to save time, money, etc.). So why is one form of discrimination acceptable (even laudable) and the other evil?

One difference might be that many Blacks were the victims of discrimination and the stereotype is therefore more legitimate. If 75% of Blacks were discriminated against while only 5% of Blacks are lazy, one stereotype would seem to be legitimate while the other irrational. But are we really going to hang the justness of an action on these numbers? If one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that 51% of Blacks are lazy, no one would have a problem with discriminating against the other 49%? I doubt that. So the distinction must be more than just numbers.

So I don't understand how, using the diversity rationale, affirmative action is justifiable, or at least morally superior to discrimination that stems not from bigotry, but from convenience.

22 Comments:

Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

What they are assuming is that Blacks have special qualities or experiences, and those attributes would contribute to the educational experience of the student body

Completely untrue. They value diversity itself rather than specific characteristics supposedly attributed to certain ethnic groups.

6/06/2006 2:19 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

What diversity are you talking about? The school just wants different shades of people? What's the point of that?

6/06/2006 2:26 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

The Supreme Court in Gratz found that diversity is a compelling state interest...

6/06/2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

The Supreme Court in Gratz found that diversity is a compelling state interest...

I don't follow.

6/06/2006 2:44 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

This is one of the biggest red herrings around. The fact is, almost everyone who is remotely qualified to get into college gets into almost every college in America today. A much bigger problem is the lack of adequate preparation in high school -- and that is as equally true of wealthy white suburbanites as of any supposedly disadvantaged minority.

And the same is true for almost all graduate programs in the United States. There is a tremendous lack of interest in graduate education among young Americans, which is one reason why China and India will beat the pants off the US in the 21st century.

For a few competitive fields, the opposite is true: Most qualified applicants do not get in. This is true for medical school and clinical psychology graduate programs. There is truly little to distinguish most applicants at least in terms of academic qualifications. They are all excellent to outstanding. I have no problem with using non-academic reasons to choose the entering clases.

My background in this is that I have taught undergraduates and graduate students, and currently teach medical students and psychology graduate students.

6/06/2006 11:28 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

I would add to the preceding post that the major affirmative action in college admissions today is for athletes and for children of alumni.

6/06/2006 11:32 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Charlie,

The fact that there are Supreme Court cases about affirmative action shows that not everyone gets into the school of his or her choice. Whether you think the effect is minimal is immaterial. The question is why is diversity a legitimate interest?

I highly doubt that legacy points are used as often as race. Athletes probably are, but I don't see what the problem is in that case.

6/07/2006 1:34 AM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

Affirmative action is necessary because bigotry is alive and well (and will always be.) Asd my mother's late husband used to say "We don't discriminate against blacks, we just don't hire them."

Affirmative action is still required for many blacks to get the opportunity that everyone else has. That should not mean that a permanent position based solely on race. I don't think it is too much to ask them to perform at school or at work up to the standard of everyone else or risk losing that opportunity.

Affirmative action isn't for black people. It's for WHITE people who still hold racist stereotypes and prejudices so strongly that it requires a LAW to get them to reform their thinking, even if just a little bit. The notion that "All men are created equal" and should be treated equally under the law was always an oft spoken platitude, but in practice, it was never and is not at present applied in our society.

Every bit of legislation ever passed has hurt the interests of some group or individual along the way. That cannot be helped in many cases. When we are working with generalities on a national scale, this will happen. Nonetheless, the white man who assumes he didn't get hired because he was white still has more opportunities, based on the similitude of his skin color to that of most human resources people, than does his black or hispanic neighbor.

6/07/2006 4:38 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

SLA - Sorry, that doesn't work. If you want people to 'learn' to not be bigots, you have to show them that their thinking is wrong. This is done by having qualified people earn their positions. In Boston, the valedictorians of the high schools were made up of just 30 or so % white people, though the city demographics are far different. They *earned* those awards.

By forcing schools or companies to take people who are not as qualified, you only reinforce the bigotry.

The only way your argument holds muster is if one assumes that most people are not only bigots, but would rather be a bigot than make a profit. Both of those are false. Will there be companies in which bigots will block minorities without affirmative action? Of course. And their competitors will grab the best ones and crush them. That's the way it should be.

6/07/2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

I didn't make an argument against affirmative action per se, but against the diversity rationale that is so popular in the courts. And as I noted, the diversity rationale works on the exact same stereotypes that it claims to minimize.

6/07/2006 10:46 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'not everyone gets into the school of his or her choice'

True. Life is unfair.

'I highly doubt that legacy points are used as often as race.'

It is a major criteria for selective undergraduate colleges, which is where the biggest hullabaloos regarding affirmative action are occurring. The colleges insist that if they can't give preference to children alumni, it will seriously cripple alumni fundraising. At my own 25th reunion, there was not a small amount of talk about how much money one needed to contribute in order to guarantee that our children would be able to attend.
The problem is that every selective college used to discriminate quote openly (remember the Jewish quotas), and giving preferences to legacies perpetuates that discrimination. Affirmative action acts to counteract the effect of legacy preference.

'By forcing schools or companies to take people who are not as qualified'

The big issue today is that the schools WANT to take people whose academic qualifications are lower than some others in order to preserve diversity. Good thing, too -- there are few enough Americans pursuing graduate degrees in science and engineering and if the graduate programs admitted only on merit, the programs would consist almost entirely of Asians. Secondary education is better in China and India, undergraduate education is better in China and India, most of their students do better on standardized tests -- are you really suggesting that we not give preference to Americans?

'would rather be a bigot than make a profit.'

The persistence of discrimination is a puzzle to economists. It is irrational behavior. It reduces profits. And it hurts the economy.

6/07/2006 11:30 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

True. Life is unfair.

Yes, but that unfairness is rooted in the same stereotypes that were used to deny Blacks admission to schools.

Affirmative action acts to counteract the effect of legacy preference.

I'm not agreeing, but that's another argument for affirmative action. I only argued against the diversity rationale, not against affirmative action as a whole.

The big issue today is that the schools WANT to take people whose academic qualifications are lower than some others in order to preserve diversity.

But why should we promote diversity?

The persistence of discrimination is a puzzle to economists. It is irrational behavior.

From a strict economic standpoint, that's true to a degree. For example, let's say a person's experience has shown him that Blacks are lazy. Even though he knows that not all Blacks are lazy, the high information costs involved in checking out each Black are higher than the gains he would have made if the Black person wasn't lazy. It is rational in that case to discriminate.

6/07/2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'But why should we promote diversity? '

To focus just on the example I gave of science and engineering graduate students, it is good for America to have Americans studying those disciplines, in order to mentor others who might consider entering those fields and to supply a necessary segment of the labor market if America is to have a future as a developed country. (I just heard on WCBS that IBM already has 43,000 employees in India.) In fact, when I interviewed for graduate school, they scrambled to find an American student for me to talk to! I'm all in favor of immigration, but there is no guarantee that all those Asian engineers and scientists will continue to want to remain here even if we do head off the suicidal push to tighten immigration restrictions.

6/07/2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Charlie,

That is not an argument for diversity per se, since the objective is not for a diverse student body, but for a certain percentage of people to be allowed into the schools in order to ensure we'll have scientists in the US. It's similar to the argument that we need more Black lawyers for role models or to practice in the Black community.

That's not a diversity argument. My post focused on that argument because it is the only acceptable state interest according to the courts.

6/07/2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

“But why should we promote diversity?”

Come down here into the real world where most blacks feel they are treated unfairly by white employers, and many act out in response to a perceived and/or sometimes real, although subtle, form of discrimination that still assumes the black guy will miss any number of days from work, likely does drugs when off work, has a drama with child support or a criminal record, and doesn’t follow through on projects assigned to him. This mentality, some of it based on realities of urban black culture, precedes the black person like an overdose of bad aftershave.

There was a black comedian whose shtick went something this:

“My wife just had a baby boy. (Applause) I named him Stanley. Now I know what you all are thinking right now. Why didn’t I, a black man, give my child a more ethnically themed name? How about Deandre? Shaquill? Demonte? See, I’m a realist. I know that in 25 years or so my son will be applying for a job somewhere, maybe even in corporate America. I’m making sure that his resume gets a response. By naming him Stanley, they won’t know he’s black until he gets TO the job interview!”

I am going to assume, and perhaps wrongly, that I am discussing these issues with educated, white collar professionals. (I know Charlie is a teacher. I was also.) I am an over-educated (although admittedly not too bright) blue-collar guy. I also live in a lower-income working class neighborhood by choice. The world I witness is along a route upon which perhaps none of you travel. I see black workers treated with less respect than white ones regardless of ability or seniority. I hear stories of discrimination that would scare you blind. I can name a dozen or more business owners that would NEVER hire a black man and they have a million excuses as to why they can’t. This is a passive aggressive form of racism; much harder to see and even tougher to root out. I also see the realities of urban culture that reinforce that racism. It’s a vicious cycle.

Civil rights legislation was important for the same reason that Affirmative Action is; human beings become ‘tribal’ through our socialization and, to overcome that powerful affinity for similitude, there has to be an overwhelming, neutral third party to enforce the common goals of the nation i.e. diversity, social tolerance, equality under the law, etc. to ensure a civil and peaceful society for everyone. This is where the law plays an important role in shaping our values for the betterment of the overall state interest.

Ezzie falsely assumes that we can just tell everyone to play nice, maybe watch an after-school special on diversity, and the people will magically drop all their prejudices. Get real. It’s been 215 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights, 143 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and 30 years since Rev. King led the civil rights movement across this land. Running alongside and perhaps at cause for those ideals was a predominating Judeo-Christian ethic that commands one to “Love Thy Neighbor”. Yet, America, for all its egalitarian bluster, doesn’t really seem to get it yet.

I agree with Charlie Hall as far the Sciences (and Applied Sciences) are concerned, but I wonder if the problem is really one of post educational economic opportunity and an insufficient work to compensation ratio. Too many kids are becoming lawyers because the degree is easier and the payoff is substantially greater. My cousin is a well known podiatrist and none of his children want anything to do with medical school, student loans, or the headaches of running a practice. Both are planning for careers outside of science or medicine. (After surviving a few courses in organic chemistry and botany, who can blame them?)

Potential engineering students also know how to read the writing on the wall and see huge numbers of jobs LEAVING the US for India and China. I think the corporations that outsource those positions and export these skills elsewhere are partly responsible for the decline in those particular fields. I don’t know if any social program or legislation can offer a remedy short of instituting a policy of rigid economic protectionism.

6/07/2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger David Fryman said...

>>But why should we promote diversity?

Because universities believe that going to school in a culturally and ethnically diverse environment is educationally beneficial. It exposes students to values and viewpoints that they may otherwise never come across. It draws attention to certain cultural differences, makes students more aware of prejudice and discrimination, and helps students overcome prejudices they may have been brought up with.

I'm not sure I fully buy this argument and, at the end of the day, affirmative action may make things worse by stigmatizing minority students. But it's not altogether unreasonable.

6/07/2006 11:56 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

SL Aronovitz,

My post did not oppose affirmative action but only one rationale for it, and the only basis for affirmative action programs in schools of higher education.

David,

But doesn't that rationale presume that each member of each race is culturally different? Isn't that a stereotype itself? And if it is, how is that different than stereotyping Blacks as being lazy and not allowing them into school? In both cases the school is looking to focus on a specific attribute and stereotype to minimize costs.

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