Friday, December 10, 2004

Equality of Oppurtunity

Over at the relatively new Left2Right blog, Don Herzog (Professor of Law at the University of Michigan) has put up an interesting post on Equality of Oppurtunity. The only way that capitalism, and indeed liberalism, can be morally justified is if every person has an equal oppurtunity, at the start, to succeed. Just as privileges based on rank or title are abhorrent to a just and meritocratic system, so are priviliges and handicaps based on class or place of birth. So, while removing legal privileges and handicaps are part of the solution, they are not the whole. Herzog writes:
"It's not enough to stop handicapping some runners and privileging others. Equality of opportunity seems to depend on some version of equality of starting points. If the son of J. Paul Getty starts life with millions and goes to a fabulous school, and you start life in Watts and go to a "school" that is mostly about social control, it's worse than facetious to say, "okay, the two of you now should run the race; ready, set, go!" Yes, it's possible that you'll beat out the wealthy kid. But those of us who are standing on the sidelines betting will require pretty long odds to take you. Head starts in the race aren't fair, either.

This argument, and variations of it, are the best I've heard in favor of Affirmative Action. Cheryl I. Harris, Assistant Professor of Law notes:
"Brown I's dialectical contradiction was that it dismantled an old form of whiteness as property while simultaneously permitting its reemergence in a more subtle form. White privilege accorded as a legal right was rejected, but de facto white privilege not mandated by law remained unaddressed. In failing to clearly expose the real inequities produced by segregation, the status quo of substantive disadvantage was ratified as an accepted and acceptable base line -- a neutral state operating to the disadvantage of Blacks long after de jure segregation had ceased to do so. [n202] In accepting substantial inequality as a neutral base line, a new form of whiteness as property was condoned. Material inequities between Blacks and whites -- the product of systematic past and current, formal and informal, mechanisms of racial subordination -- became the norm." ["Whiteness as Property" 106 Harvard L. Rev. 1707 (June 1993), 1753]

I don't know (and I am skeptical) that it is ever possible to create an "equality of starting points." However, in the face of that reality the need to mitigate and ameliorate the unjust effects of unequal starting points has to be a primary goal of a liberal society. If the system is biased against some at the start, it cannot compound its bias by holding the disadvantaged liable for their own failures. At the same time, the government cannot hold everyones hand and refuse to impose any accountability on those who may just not be up to making the grade. Toeing the narrow line between them is hard to do, but it is a task that must be done if we are to truly live in a just society.


  1. Maybe, if the people with worse starting points started reforming their cultures, changing their societal attitudes, breaking the cycle which they themselves are complicit in, then equalling out the starting points would get a lot easier. Because, you see, the worse starting point is not solely the result of the Man, forcing white oppression on the ghetto, it isn't solely the fault of white people. This is part of it, but blacks also need to look in the mirror a little bit. Affirmative action would be a much more comelling, troubling, compromisnig issue for me if I saw a mass movement within black society to reform, to eleminate hip hop culture of Ron Artest, and exploitation of women, and crap music, and glorification of violence and drugs, and all of these other inherent black cultural elemnts which only serve to exacerbate the black socieconomic predicament. If I saw black society, on the whole, making a little more effort, working a little bit harder, to ameliorate their own position, then I would be much more compelled by affirmative action.

  2. At best, the statement that underachievement is a "black cultural problem" doesn't have any bearing on AA. The argument David presents isn't predicated on a "good" black culture. As I read it, the premises in the argument are:

    1) Equality of Opportunity is good
    2) EoO doesn't exist if people have different starting points
    3) AA mitigates problems with EoO due to different starting points

    ---> AA is a justifiable tool

  3. Just to clarify what the general emotional trajectory of my tone, I thought, conveyed: I don't thik affirmative action is unwarranted or Schraub's argumetns are invalid, I only think that a) Affirmative action would be more useful if black culture reformed itself. B) That affirmative action on its own has a relatively small effect on black culture as a whole. c) that no one can depend on the government to "move up the starting points" of the race without stepping up to the same line as everyone else.

  4. Has it occured to you that the "problems of the black culture" might be inextricablly linked to their social, economic and political oppression over the last 400 years? Thats not to say they SHOULDN'T make efforts to change, but implying with you rhetoric that African Americans are partly responsible for their condition is hardly justified.

  5. Anonymous1:00 AM

    hip hop culture?
    exploitation of women?
    crap music?
    glorification of violence and drugs?
    inherent black cultural elements?

    Man, have you ever turned on a TV or listened to a radio?

    I don't see them as "inherently black". These are mainstream ideals in the popular culture.

    It's not a black thing, it's a Media thing.

    As Jack wrote, this argument has been made for decades without much attention to causality.

    I've not read a single, credible study on the genetic predisposition of blacks to participate in these social ills.

    Furthermore, the perception that black culture in toto needs reforming is naive.

    You're tagging a race with a label that applies to a portion of the group.