This week the cover feature of The Economist magazine argues that it is “time to scrap affirmative action” (link). In the US, the article anticipates the Supreme Court’s hearing cases from Michigan and Texas that may have major impact on the practice of affirmative action in college admissions. (See this post for a summary of affirmative action’s evolution in the US: What is accutane.) The magazine also considers affirmative action in the US against experiences elsewhere, with separate stories focusing on South Africa and Malaysia. This comparative perspective is welcomed. I recently taught an undergraduate seminar studying affirmative action policies around the world (course page). The seminar considered arguments on either side of affirmative action debates in different countries, trying to develop for students a nuanced perspective.
As is often the case with Economist features, I came away annoyed by the superficiality of its journalists’ treatment of the issue. First, the journalists point to the fact that while affirmative action policies are targeted toward historically “disadvantaged” (a euphemism…) groups, the beneficiaries are often relatively better-off members of those groups. This is taken to mean that affirmative action is broken, insofar as it does not necessarily help the neediest. This kind of argument often comes up, and a commonly proposed “solution” is to do away with group based affirmative action and pursue instead policies aimed at improving prospects for the poor—that is, to replace “race” with “class” as the basis for preferential policies.
This line of argument is highly problematic to me. Why should families that are members of historically disadvantaged groups become disqualified for reparation because of their success? Reparation is still meaningful for such families: a family that is middle class despite discrimination may well have been upper middle class had there been no discrimination. Many reasonable theories of justice would take such a gap to be quite worthy of redress (cf. the work by Lowry, Weisskopf, and Fryer on the syllabus for my seminar linked above). Arguments going back over a century to DuBois’s “Talented Tenth” essay (link) go even further to propose that redress of this variety restores among society’s elite positions for members of groups that have been discriminated-against. Note that a natural implication of such restoration is an increase in income inequality within the formerly discriminated-against group. So long as this is a reflection of the income “ceiling” being lifted rather than an income “floor” falling, such an increase in inequality poses no ethical dilemma with respect to concerns related to redressing legacies of discrimination. (Whether inequality per se nonetheless deserves attention is a separate issue.)
In a nutshell, there is a problem with conflating redress of legacies of racial discrimination on the one hand with poverty relief or removing barriers to class-based mobility on the other. A switch from race-based to class-based affirmative action would inevitably dilute reparation of race-based discrimination in favor of transfer to groups who were not victims of institutionalized discrimination. In the US, say, the problem is that sustaining group- rather than class-based preferences is a very hard position to sustain with the mass electorate, because it conflicts with the self interest of the (non black) majority. As such, sustaining this position would require keeping it out of the hands of the mass electorate—the usual minority protection arguments. In places like South Africa and, now, India, the situation is different, as “disadvantaged” status applies to majorities.
The other problem I had with the Economist’s treatment of the issue was their failure to engage adequately with the deep empirical literature on this topic. In discussing affirmative action in the US, the journalists spend a lot of time on Sander and Taylor’s work on the so-called “mismatch” hypothesis, without considering solid critiques of these findings by some of the sharpest minds in social science: link. That fact that none of these critiques were mentioned is a sad statement either of how journalists abuse scientific evidence to make points that they find appealing on the basis of taste or ideology, how little research is actually done in the production of pieces for highly influential venues like the Economist, or how catchy but potentially fallacious arguments generate buzz that drown out critiques (cf. Rogoff-Reinhart).
This is not to say that I am an uncritical believer in the expansion of affirmative action policies. I take the potential for perverse incentives seriously and understand how thorny it can be to design mechanisms for redress in a worse-than-second-best world. What I do hope for is that such policies are considered on the basis of relevant considerations and a serious review of the evidence.