Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Morality Tuesday

Yesterday was a holiday, so I had no idea it was Monday. So to make it up to my readers, I'm holding the discussion today. Without further ado.

I was reading The Ancestors' Tale by Richard Dawkins last night, and in a chapter about race and ethnicity he stated he opposition to affirmative action, or "positive discrimination" as he called it. So how about it? Is affirmative action, as is currently applied in the US (i.e. slight favoratism to african-americans) a good thing or a bad thing? Is it as morally reprehensible as negative discrimination?

Before I go into my thoughts, I should disclose that I am a white male with an upper-middle class background, and as such I have the most to lose (financially) to affirmative action.

I think A.A. is a good thing. I rationalize it like this: If there are two candidates for a job, one white and one black, and both have the same college major with the same GPA, and following college both applicants worked in the same position in two identical companies. Both applicants, in other words, are indistinguishable on paper. It seems to me that even though both applicants have accomplished the same results, the black applicant has done so while working against the institutionalized and individual racism that is still prevalent in US society. As such, his accomplishments seem more impressive. In other words, factoring race into the equation is not a handout to minorities, it is just a recognition of the applicant's actual accomplishments.

Here's an analogy. Let's say you want to hire the faster runner you can. So you look at to runners' times for 40 meters. Both runners clocked in at 9.8 seconds. Now you're stumped. But then you find out that one runner actually ran the 40 meter hurtles, and clocked that time while successful jumping over numerous hurtles. Seems like you should hire the hurtler.

There are some flaws, of course. While my position may be fair for two individuals in identical situations, what if the black applicant was from a wealthy family and the white applicant was from a poor family? What if one applicant is a woman? It does seem to me now that I'm writing my thoughts out that the inevitable conclusion to my position would require an advanced calculation involving many aspects of every applicant's racial, family, and class background. That does seem a little unworkable.

OK. So now I'm uncertain. Maybe I don't support a.a. I guess I'm on the fence. Any attempt to sway me one way or another would be appreciated.


Blogger warm fuzzy said...

your hurdle argument is an interesting one. I have never given AA much thought, but in my gut, I've always leaned more on the side of being pro-AA. I have nothing to back up my pro-AA leanings though.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous scarletpanda said...

What if we had AA based only on economic factors? While minorities certainly face actual race-based discrimination today, a huge part of the obstacles they face stem from their generally lower socioeconomic class, which is a result of past institutionalized racism.

Economically based AA makes a lot of intuitive sense. Suppose two kids take the SAT and get the same score. Kid #1 is poor, with poorly educated parents, and goes to a school with few teachers and not enough books. Kid #2 is wealthy, with parents who bought him every educational baby toy, sent him to expensive private schools, and made him go to Princeton review classes.

Which kid has the better combination of raw ability and hard work? I think it's pretty obviously Kid #1, whether he's a black kid from the inner city or a white kid from Appalachia. And I don't think it matters that much whether Kid #2 is black or white.

In reality, of course, the economic AA would largely track the race-based AA, so the effect would be the same--remedying past oppression and increasing minority representation in professions and universities. But it would be less offensive to our sense that it's unjust to discriminate on the basis of race.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

SP, it seems to me that economic-based affirmative action would be better (fairer anyway) than race based, but I think the same problem I grappled with in the post still comes to bear. I wasn't able to articulate it very well in the post, but I may have nailed it down.

Whenever you talk about affirmative action, it seems to make intuitive sense and seem down right fair on the group level. That is to say, certain groups of people with certain characteristics in common tend to face the same obstacles. However, on the individual level, every single person has a different life story with unique obstacles (well, not every person). Social and economic class seems to present fairly uniform obstacles nation-wide, but if you're poor and live in a state with particularly good social welfare programs, you may face substantially fewer hurdles than a black woman born into a higher social class.

The point, to me at least, is that unless we're willing to put together some expansive calculus that takes into account how any two people competing for the same job (or spot in a law school)compare in terms of any disadvantage they have had to overcome, it seems that unfair results would be inevitable. A solution, maybe, would be relying less on "objective" indicia and relying instead on personal interviews. I don't really know if that would produce any better results, but at least it would avoid us having to make the difficult decisions about what factors to include (and exclude) in the affirmative action calculus.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

There's discrimination in hiring practices. AA was designed to solve this problem, and since its enaction there's been an increase in minority hiring. But there's still discrimination in hiring which is specific to minorities, as opposed to those of lower economic class. So the case for AA - It's worked in the past and the problem it's designed to fix still exists, so it should continue.

While economic-AA would work to an extent, there's enough of a minority discrimination problem distinct from economics that minority AA should continue.

9:18 AM  

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