Once upon a time, I vaguely supported affirmative action. I hadn't thought about it much, but I knew that racism still existed, and that black people in particular had been the victims of strong discrimination fairly recently in history. Then, as I moved through high school and college, I began to have my doubts. When I got a job after college, I started participating in hiring and firing decisions, and I soon came to believe that affirmative action often hurts the people it's intended to help.
That claim undoubtedly sounds strange. After all, affirmative-action policies are intended to increase the representation of minorities and correct for injustices both past and present. How could a policy intended to help minorities actually hurt them? Well, in general, public policy is complicated: policies have consequences, both intended and unintended, and those consequences have their own consequences; not all of those consequences are desirable or beneficial. When evaluating a policy, we have to look at all of its real effects, not its immediate or intended effects, however beneficial those intended effects might be. Past experience indicates that I'll be plastered with knee-jerk accusations of racism, but so be it.
If we're going to discuss affirmative action, it's useful to begin by defining the term. Strangely enough, good definitions are hard to find. The NAACP website doesn't provide one, for example, and the website for the American Association of Affirmative Action (yes, there is such an organization) just says that affirmative action "is not rocket science; it's harder than rocket science" and claims that nobody can explain it in a mere two-minute discussion. It does mention that affirmative-action programs make "a good-faith effort to ... attract minorities and women in percentages that are representative of the general workforce the employer recruits from"; however, it doesn't identify specific policies (except to say that quotas are illegal). From what I've seen, though, affirmative-action policies can range all the way from extra interviews for minority candidates to preferential treatment for less-qualified minority candidates.
Let's start with college admissions; after all, that's where we hear the most about affirmative action. Many undergraduate admissions departments make some effort to recruit underrepresented minorities, even if few admit to hard-and-fast quotas. In some cases, admissions officers deliberately accept minority candidates even if better-qualified majority candidates are available. Other departments use a more moderate policy; when forced to choose between minority and majority candidates with equal qualifications, they choose the candidate from the underrepresented minority.
The latter policy causes the fewest problems. It's realistic to say that two candidates can seem indistinguishable; if you're faced with 15,000 applications, it's probably impossible to assign a unique and meaningful rank to every single one of them. It's still not a meritocratic system, though--that would use a coin-flip to decide between two equal candidates.
Let's look instead at the consequences of the first policy. Suppose you're a college admissions officer and you're going to lower the SAT threshold for minorities from 1400 to 1200. You're assuming that the minority candidates received lower scores because of discrimination. In some cases, you're right--some minority students do poorly because their parents could not get good jobs or their teachers assumed they were just hopeless dumb black people or whatever. (Such teachers should be driven out of the profession, but that doesn't help the student in question.) Many minority students, however, grew up in wealthy families in which they had plenty of opportunities and sources of encouragement--perhaps more than a white student from a poor family would've had!
So not all minority students are slogging through deep water with a weight on their back (to use Saige's metaphor). Moreover, it's perfectly possible for minorities to perform well in spite of discrimination--it takes hard work and strength of character, but people do it. So, yes, in some cases, an SAT score of 1200 underestimates a minority student's intelligence, but in other cases, it's right on the button. Thus, if you admit a bunch of minority students with 1200s, you're admitting some people who really aren't qualified. The SAT predicts school performance reasonably well, so, on average, beneficiaries of affirmative action will perform more poorly than majority students...and teachers and students are bound to notice. Moreover, some of these students will be at the very bottom of the barrel, so many of them will suffer and fail (although grade inflation may prevent them from actually failing out). Is this racist and unfair? I don't think so--follow the reasoning, and follow the numbers. It's a true statement of a direct result of affirmative action.
I haven't even mentioned that this policy isn't at all fair to the majority students who worked hard to earn good grades. Suppose you're a high school student who works your butt off to get good grades, participate in extracurriculars, whatever it takes. Then you get rejected from your top choice only because the university needed the spot for a minority. Proponents of affirmative action claim that such situations are mythical, which is strange, because I've met a few people who had this experience and I don't often hallucinate. Here's the story: the high school my sister attended frequently sends many people to top schools. Ten of them applied to Swarthmore. Nine of them were rejected, and one of them--the only minority one--was accepted. Now you're saying, "Okay, but maybe the black student was more qualified." We know that's not the case: each year, the school puts out a booklet that describes how the previous year's seniors fared when they applied to college. The book is organized by college, and for each school, it lists each applicant's GPA, SAT scores, number of APs, racial group, and legacy, if any. They don't print names, but it's easy enough to figure out who's who. The nine students got the booklet the following year, looked under Swarthmore, and found that the black student had lower grades, fewer APs, fewer extracurriculars, lower SAT scores, and no legacy. But she was the only one accepted. (Yes, I know that isolated anecdotes aren't adequate evidence, but I'd love to see admissions departments release similar numbers. Somehow I doubt they will.)
"Fine," you might respond, "let's not admit less-qualified students; let's stick with the less offensive policy. Affirmative-action policies still increase diversity and expose students to people from other cultures, which is good." Unfortunately, the available evidence shows that an increase in diversity does not immediately lead to integration. For example, a few years ago, 60 Minutes ran a documentary on race relations at Duke University. They found that after several years of affirmative action, black and white students had not integrated; rather, they had self-segregated. The university had white frats and black frats, white dorms and black dorms, white parties and black parties, even a white bench and a black bench on the central lawns near the chapel. Sure, sometimes white-sheeted white students are to blame, but one can identify one or two people who fan the flames of discontent on the black side as well. Affirmative action does not necessarily force the majority to accept the minority--in fact, because of the preferential treatment I've described, it can actually foster resentment.
Now, let's remain in the university for the moment but move to the other side of the podium. Black student organizations often place great pressure on administrators to hire additional black faculty. But there just aren't enough black faculty to go around, because very few minorities entered graduate programs in the 60's and 70's (in fact, that's one of the main reasons why affirmative action was proposed in the first place!) So universities end up caving in to the pressure and hiring less-qualified black faculty. Now, affirmative action is supposed to show students that black people are just as capable as white people--but what happens when students do encounter one of the few black professors and find out that he's subpar? What happens when the sole role model for black people is a moron? How does this help fight the stereotype of the "stupid black person"?
Moreover, affirmative action just causes more resentment among faculty members. Black professors are a scarce resource, so competition for them is fierce--universities end up offering them a high salary, a house, a car, not because the Hispanic woman is better than anyone else, but only because she's Hispanic and the university needs another one on the books. One can imagine how the majority faculty--who worked exceptionally hard to earn their jobs--react when they see a less-qualified minority driving around in the Jaguar the university gave her. It's true that the minority faculty would've correctly felt that way about the majority faculty some years ago, but I just can't see that two wrongs make a right.
Let's leave the university and move to the real world. What happens here?
Well, you might say "Whatever--even if all you say is true, at the end of it all, this minority is still going to graduate from Harvard (or wherever), and that's what's important--that's what's ultimately going to get him a job." Maybe...and then again, maybe not. A degree from a prominent university has value because it indicates that the student has an exceptional intellect and has successfully handled difficult challenges. If Harvard relaxes its standards--if it admits less-qualified students, eliminates core requirements, and creates programs and majors that allow unqualified minority students to coast through without being challenged--then its degree no longer has the weight it once did. The degree has a different weight for minorities because the standards have been different throughout.
So affirmative action can sometimes prevent the minority applicant from reaping the benefits of the prominent university degree. It'll come back to haunt him in the workplace--it's a tough business world out there, and companies can't afford to give out too many sinecures. Anyway, when a minority from a prominent university applies for a job, interviewers are forced to think "So is this person smart...or was she just a token black person?" This problem can pursue the minority throughout his career: "He got hired at Company A. Is it because he's good, or did they just need some black guy who wouldn't embarrass them?" "She worked at Company B for the last few years. I remember hearing that they got slapped with a sex-discrimination lawsuit...yeah, she got hired just after that. Hmm.") (Also, the moderate affirmative action policy I described before--the one in which minority candidates are accepted only if they are equal to a majority candidate--probably doesn't come into play when you have only two or three candidates for a particular job; in that case, you probably really can figure out who the best candidate is.) Note that these problems aren't caused by mindless bias on the part of the interviewer; they're plausible hypotheses. The minority candidate might very well be a less-qualified candidate who received his position through race alone. Can the interviewer really pretend that this isn't the case?
Many companies have affirmative-action programs too, but these don't seem to help minorities much either. One company I worked at had a rule saying that when minority applicants applied for jobs, they had to receive interviews. That sounds nice and moderate--hey, at least they're not turning down majorities to hire underqualified minorities--but in some ways it's not much better. Often, the interviewer will already know who he wants to hire for a given position, and he'll know from the resumes that the other minority candidates just don't happen to be better than the minority candidate. He's forced to interview them anyway, even though he knows he won't hire them. This wastes the time of both the interviewer and the applicant (my boss once made the following true statement: "I can't meet with you on Thursday; Human Resources is making me go interview some black people and Hispanics for a few hours.") Now, take the implications of this policy one step further: minorities who receive interviews are rejected more often than majorities who receive interviews, solely because they're required to receive interviews even if they won't get the job. Would you want this if you were a candidate? Would you want to spend time interviewing for a job you weren't going to get? Is affirmative action in this case really a benefit to the minority candidate?
All these problems with affirmative action explain why people don't want affirmative action if they don't think they need it. Take Julie, a sophomore who started working in our lab a while ago. Julie is fantastic, and anyone would be wise to hire her. She earns good grades, she works hard and well, she's personable, and she knows when to take the initiative-two weeks after she started, she took charge of one of our projects and made it much more productive and efficient. Julie's a perfect employee and a great student...and she's also Hispanic. But she's never used that to her advantage. When she got her college applications, she looked at the little box on the form that asked her to mark her race. She thought about it, and she realized that she'd never know how good she really was if she checked the "Hispanic" box. She took a deep breath and checked the "White" box...and now she knows that she got in not because of the color of her skin, but because of the content of her character.
It's easy for Julie to evade affirmative action-she doesn't particularly look Hispanic and she doesn't have a Spanish last name-but it's much harder for my friend Johanna. Johanna's a graduate student in physics, a field in which women are relatively rare. She constantly has to face suspicions that she's a token, an equal-opportunity admit, a bone thrown to the PC fanatics. What was she supposed to do? She couldn't exactly hide her sex (not that she should have to) because she had already established a reputation while an undergraduate and, in any case, she had to go for interviews. She did refuse to apply for any women-only fellowships or scholarships; instead, she competed against the men--and won. (Johanna and Julie aren't the only people who feel this way; Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly have made similar points.)
A minority--any minority--can best combat discrimination by being as good as they possibly can be. If they excel, if they work so hard that they're the best in their field, then people who refuse to hire them will be exposed as the prejudiced fools that they are. It is possible-it's what the Jews and Irish and Indians and Asians and everybody else did. Is it entirely fair? Maybe not--but it's what works.