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Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Who affirmative action helps, and who it hurts....

posted by Razib Khan at Wednesday, June 21, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
Conservative science blogger Brown Gaucho has a post about affirmative action which I might have written years ago. It is basically the standard argument that affirmative action hurts (some) minorities because by lowering the bar of entry to encourage "diversity" it creates stigma and also does not do anything to address the underlying issues (e.g., poor secondary schools). But a few years ago I concluded that there was a problem with this narrative.

Stigma is a problem for those who are capable and competent and are tarred with the brush of association. But, as a matter of empirical fact I think affirmative action has been great in generating a black middle class, for every black doctor whose self-esteem is underminded by the reality that his colleagues probably assume his medical school admission was a bit easier than their own, there are a dozen who wouldn't have gotten into medical school without lower GPA & MCAT requirements. Though I think there might be some negative effects on the black working & underclass, who aren't really helped by diversity slots at University of Michigan law school, it has been a Good Thing for most of the "talented 10th" within disadvantaged minority groups. I asked John McWhorter about the subpar performance of black American students in academics despite the fact that more than half of said ethnic group was in the "middle class," and McWhorter responded that "you don't need to be that bright to be in the middle class." Fair enough. I think an argument can be made that the black middle class of today, which is heavily dependent on government jobs, is a product of affirmative action. In that way, uplift and economic security have been a beneficial byproduct.

But, I also think that conservatives are right that affirmative action generates a stigma. Ultimately, it treats those who benefit as victims in the tide of history who lack their own agency. Additionally, I think it allows society to mask the difficulties of the lower and underclasses of color by pointing to the presence of upper middle class faces of color at elite institutions of higher education. Where I think those on the Right, where I generally place myself, are wrong is to assume that abolition of affirmative action will not cause mass distress, and possibly dispossession, of the middle class generated by it.

We've made our bed, now we need to face the consequences. There are no easy choices. Both the Left and the Right dodge the structural problems that resulted in the need for affirmation action, and the problems which are now facts of life which necessitate the maintenance of affirmative action.

Addendum: As a person of brown complexion my reason for opposing affirmative action in most forms (which includes government contracts) for those who "look like me" is simple and selfish: I don't want to be perceived as a victim without agency for whom the white man's handout is necessary for success. Yet the reality is that I live a life with many choices enabled by the fact that I can generate a decent income doing things which come rather easily to me. If I was a more marginal fellow I might sing a different tune when it comes to handouts and the importance of pride! The point of this post is that the Left needs to acknowledge that many competent minorities are slighted by the perception of implicit inferiority that affirmative action generates toward them, and they live their whole life being the objects of pity or patronization from their inferiors. But, the Right needs to acknowledge that revoking affirmation action might have dire consequences for those who simply have come to depend on training wheels as a fact of life. There is no free lunch here. And we don't live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average....



Your views are common enough among people who I talk to. What do you think about changing the affirmative action system in such a way that it focuses not on race, gender, or ethnicity but rather socioeconomic status? It seems to me that it is more important to help the poor and middle class lift themselves up rather than try to create a pockets of relatively wealthy non-whites. Race, ethnicity, and gender shouldn't--in my opinion--have anything to do with it.


Tim - count me in on that!

I often argue ferociously with the IQ-h-bd crowd about how they consoistently fail to factor our class from their race-based analyses. Steve Sailer in particular is always guilty of this. The left and the right both need to focus more on class, not race.


rather socioeconomic status

that is far more acceptable to me. to be clear, there are still issues with this, but the problems are an order of magnitude less daunting and concerning.


btw, i've heard this 'affirmative action by class' argument for years, but it isn't going to work from what i can tell. affirmative action by race is a litmus test for dems, leiberman had to flip, and webb has too. so i'll settle from a compromise, affirmation action for blacks and native americans only (though make sure native americans get a genetic test! their numbers are rising suspiciously, and i don't know how much brown skin unprivilege the blonde blue-eyed tribals i've seen at pow-wows experience). as long as immigrants and non-black and non-native american groups get excluded and treated as individuals i would be willing to not particularly care about this issue (affirmative action for women isn't as divisive because we all have mothers, many of us have sisters & daughters).


minorities because by lowering the bar of entry to encourage "diversity"

This is what I think the problem is -- that it is a sacrifice of quality to quantity, called "diversity".

This will not do anyone any good at the end of the day.

btw, I need some kind of political action for my lack of woman-getting achievement. I've done everything correctly; these chicks are clearly just biased for some reason.




*cough* I left conservatism before I was 18, thank you very much.

Razib, few conservatives would argue (or at least argue quite as vehemently) against an affirmative action based on SES. That, at least, is something that makes sense.

One thing that has always bothered me is how few of my black classmates have been 'underprivileged' or indeed whose parents made less than mine (a doctor and a professor). Something is fishy.

(I know you're not liberal but) I've often heard it said that 'reality has a well-known liberal bias'. If so, then why are liberals so unwilling to base AA (or indeed any social welfare policy) around the actual causes, instead choosing the varyingly correlated proxy of race?


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.