Friday, May 23, 2008

Preference and Mistrust

An oft-heard argument against affirmative action is that the use of racialized preferences ends up hurting the beneficiaries because other people then question whether they're "really" qualified for the positions they've received, or are just "affirmative action hires." Even people who might have earned it "on their own" get caught up in this mistrustful sentiment, and by ultimately impugning the abilities of Black people everywhere, it shows that affirmative action, despite its good intentions, ultimately is harmful to the interests of Blacks.

This argument can come in several forms, and some would argue that even though the sentiment isn't just, it's there, and hence pragmatically affirmative action causes more problems than it solves. Unfair as that might be, it is a sentiment that needs to be grappled with in reality, not wished away by utopian hopes. This argument I think is at least a reasonable one, and though I don't think it ultimately shows that we should abolish affirmative action, it is one that needs to be addressed on its terms.

Another form, however, is to argue that the view really is just, and not racist. Blacks really are receiving a preference, this really does raise legitimate questions about their "actual" qualifications, which are masked by the use of preferences, and thus it is perfectly rational to have suspicions about the true ability of Black people hired in affirmative action practicing institutions.

This argument, to be blunt, is bogus. Even if we accept some rather shaky underlying assumptions that it rests on: that there is a stable, objective entity known as "merit" which can be measured, and affirmative action (or any sort of preference that is not explicitly "merit" based) means giving less meritorious applicants positions over more-qualified individuals, it would still be true that the way this argument plays out it racist.

How do I know? Simple. Nobody mistrusts the qualifications of White people even when there is significant evidence that they received their positions through non-merit based channels -- even and including race-based preference. The argument is only applied against Black people, and when a facially neutral argument only is applied in a manner harmful to Blacks, that's racism.

Now, I could argue that Whites today often gain significant advantages by virtue of White privilege that undoubtedly have some bearing on their current position, job, or class level. And I think that's true, and I think it's pretty clear that nobody wonders aloud about whether all White folks are "really" qualified for the positions they hold. But I don't even need to focus on the present, because we have a far more slam-dunk case: how White achievement was treated at the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Nobody, presumably, would disagree that prior to the civil rights movement, Whites had race-based "preferences" that gave them advantages in the workplace and society. And few would disagree (hopefully) that those preferences were immoral. But even during the civil rights era, there was not a broad based acceptance that individual Whites might not "deserve" to be where they are -- in their job, in their schools, in the neighborhoods, in their class, in their seniority rankings -- whatever. Insofar as the average White was referenced, it was to posit their "innocence"; that they hadn't done anything wrong, so all they had accomplished was perfectly meritorious. This belief was then used to block many integration efforts during the civil rights movement, as Blacks, paradoxically, were seen as taking positions from Whites who had "earned" them despite the fact that they clearly had been treated preferentially. That's why, from a personnel standpoint, very little changed after the civil rights "revolution". We often act like America had the equivalent of an oil change" after 1965, taking out our racist citizens and replacing them with purely color-blind people. But obviously, that didn't happen -- the same Whites who were benefiting from preferential treatment in 1960 had, by and large, their same jobs and same positions in 1970, and nobody considered asking whether or not they truly earned it.

So even though we concede those people got preferential treatment, and even though (unlike affirmative action) we universally agree that treatment was wrong, we still don't tell ourselves that their qualifications are suspect. Even retrospectively, we don't look back and wonder about whether they truly were the best men and women for their jobs. We don't ask ourselves whether our first 35 or so Presidents really were "qualified" for office. We don't ask whether or not the entire White middle class "earned" its place there. Clearly, preferential treatment does not have to entail mistrust about qualifications -- and it never has for any White person in the history of America. In fact, despite the theoretical neutrality of the argument, it is only applied against Blacks. That's racism, no matter how you slice it.

11 comments:

GottSchreit said...

I think many of your points are just, but I think there is this point: a huge part of why "white" people may be legitimately more qualified for many positions and black people are not has nothing to do with black people being stupid, it has to do with the horrible stratification of our education system.

I do agree that this whole idea that somehow all white people have "earned" their positions irrespective of anything else that happened before is bogus, but I can't help but feel it's like hanging up a new chandelier in a condemned house; it may elevate some blacks up out of poverty, but I have to question the solidity of those blacks middle-class position then, because it always seems so fragile because it's based on an institutional usurpation. But, vastly more importantly I think, it distracts from the real, true issue: the house is collapsing, a.k.a. education, which is key to "qualifying" for a position, is so undermined by the way we fund our schools that it seems almost impossible that black children could meet the general standards of qualification.

I don't think you can make a red brick blue by calling it blue; if an African American had his or her grades elevated on tests and in college due to his or her race, and then got into a position due to his or her race, this does not suddenly mean they have the qualifications necessary. If anything it means the opposite because it circumvents the whole educational system, but in either case the educational system is broken for the institutionally impoverished.

This is why I wonder about this whole thing: if what we want is for blacks to have an equal place in the system then this should be done by reformation, not by circumvention, which I think does increase resentment. There are more white people than black people, and as long as the education system so over-favors white children and under-schools black children I think the "unqualified" will be valid, though entirely by merit of the fact that our system is a failure.

So in many ways I do have to wonder about affirmitive actions because I see it as a) a waste of time an effort, diverting resources and argument from the root problem of education, and b) weakening institutions which promote unqualified and improperly educated people, though those people are like that through no fault of their own but by the failure of the system on so many levels.

I just don't see it as such an easy issue as the way you put it.

Joe said...

I think your argument would play better addressing white privilege as it stands today rather than as it has been practiced in the past. (And I think there's a case to be made against the qualifications of those past beneficiaries of white privilege; at the very least, they certainly had a leg up getting where they were-- if there had been a level playing field they might not have climbed so high--so there exists an inefficiency. Things could be better if we had a broader pool of talent to draw from.)

But what I really take issue with is what you say about merit generally. Now, in a very real sense nothing is objective and everything we believe and do boils down to a matter of taste. But so what? We make value judgments all the time. Many people would balk at explicitly placing a price tag on their lives, for instance. But that's exactly what we do when we get in a car-- we weigh the risk of accident versus the value of getting to some destination in a hurry. Just because we're not consciously doing math doesn't mean it's not ultimately that sort of calculation. Or, more transparently, think of a jury awarding damages in a wrongful death suit.

So what does this have to do with merit? Well it seems to me that an employer hiring based on "merit" is basically making a judgment on which individual would add the most value to the business, with certain factors excluded from the calculus (I would say basic fairness prohibits weighing race or sexual orientation in these decisions, even though I can think of situations where these factors might affect the bottom line [a business with gay employees runs the risk of being boycotted, after all-- though note that this risk is reduced when the discrimination is statutorily prohibited]. Now, the employer might make a mistake about the relative value of say, an Ivy League education or ten years' experience or what have you, but these are quantifiable considerations, not as nebulous as you make them sound.

(I had more to say but I don't have the original post in front of me, may have more to add later.)

Anonymous said...

"Nobody mistrusts the qualifications of White people even when there is significant evidence that they received their positions through non-merit based channels."

I think this is just totally wrong. People at my workplace complain all the time about other (white) people who they feel were unjustly promoted. Very few (white) people in positions of power are felt to have "earned" their positions. Many people in positions of power achieved their positions through sucking up and screwing over other people -- and I assure you that this view is widely accepted in the white community.

Cycle Cyril said...

You look at the past to justify present policies but at what point do you say the past is the past? With your logic you will forever be looking at the person's skin color as opposed his character.

But the fallacy in your thinking is the elimination of economic incentives to hire the best available regardless of race. One small example, gleamed from Sowell's book Economic Facts and Fallacies, is who hired black chemists in the pre-civil rights era. Academia, removed from any pressure of profit or losses, had none. Industry, needing those who could do the work, hired them all.

But let me return to your starting off point. You say, in effect, that blacks are victims again of prejudice by the sentiment that they are merely in their job or career based on affirmative action. But there are objective means of evaluating this. And one comes from your chosen field of law.

In a Wall St. Journal article
(http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110010522) highlights the pitfalls of affirmative action to propel underqualified blacks into an academic environment they are not prepared for to their ultimate detriment.

Unfortunately the sentiment of "racialized preferences..hurting the beneficiaries" is not just perceived but real. At the very least it creates an entitlement based on victimization or utopian goals in a group of people that no group should have. Entitlements should only come from achievements.

David Schraub said...

I'm quite familiar with Sander's study (the one quoted in your WSJ article -- try to cite to original sources please). It's a solid piece of work, albeit one that has received plenty of attacks on the merits and on the methodology, and contrary to Prof. Herdiot's assertions, alternative explanations of Sander's data have been included. One excellent reply comes from Katherine Barnes, Is Affirmative Action Responsible for the Achievement Gap Between Black and White Law Students?, 101 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1759 (2007). Others can be found here and here.

As to Prof. Herdiot's complaint about the threat of "litigation" if CA releases info about Black bar passage rate, I would bet money that the problem is that California, thanks to Ward Connerly and the conservative color-blind ideology you so adore, has made it so the state is prohibited from collecting or disseminating racially-classified information. Whoops.

Cycle Cyril said...

My bad for not quoting original sources. (On a slightly different issue, perhaps due to my luddite brain, I find blogspot difficult to hyperlink articles and take the easy way out and not hyperlink or just paste the url. If you have any suggestsions beyond laboriously typing out the html tags I would appreciate it.)

The ideology I adore is not conservative color blindness but color blindness and equal opportunities.

I will repeat my question. When would the past become the past? With your set of ideologies, which propagate inequalities, not to mention reduce opportunites, you will be forever looking at skin color and only skin coloration. When do you stop?

Further with the current "anti-discrimination" bureaucracy and groups in place who are more concerned with statistics pulled out of a hat and their own influence such focusing on skin color will not go away.

David Schraub said...

I've never found typing the html to be that hard, so that's what I do.

On the "when will you stop using racialized thinking," I think my response is adequately encapsulated in my Philosophy of the Limit post. I'll stop using racialized thinking when it is no longer required for the pursuit of justice. If that never happens, so be it.

Cycle Cyril said...

I believe there are several other blogging websites that provide easier linking via drop menus, but whatever.

The problem with your philosophy of the limit is several fold.

First off the goal of equal ability is would require such massive state intervention for such an utopian goal that it would, as it already has, result in contrary effects. In the US it has already resulted in the bigotry that blacks need our help, which then leads to persistent infantilization of blacks and, as the Sander's study indicates, leads to further frustration and recrimination let alone a sense of deadend victimization.

Justice and equal opportunity need to be achieved but history has shown it can only and truly be achieved incrementally. And even then the costs must be considered. For example many would consider capital punishment not just immoral but unjust. However it has been shown here and here that innocent lives are scraficed with each execution avoided. Thus we must be aware of not just the cost of not achieving but also the cost of achieving a specific justice.

Finally, to repeat myself, seeking equal "ability" is would require in effect a dictatorial regime to ensure a statistically smooth distribution of "ability". I do not want more governmental bureaucrats looking at stats on paper and then claiming that I'm bigoted because my few employees do not match the racial characteristics of the general population.

PG said...

anonymous's claim that white people are suspicious of one another's qualifications misses the point that I think David was trying to make. White people in the 1960s never considered whether their particular position -- say, being a vice-president rather than just a senior manager -- might have been due to the smaller number of competitors for the positions, which in turn was due to discrimination that kept out black talent throughout the system: in primary and secondary education, in college and for entry-level jobs. I imagine the failure to consider whether a black person might have held one's position derives from the assumption that there aren't enough talented black people to significantly impact whites' positions, and therefore that so long as one is competing fairly with whites, one has earned the position.

And unsurprisingly, cycle cyril doesn't even quote Thomas Sowell accurately. The exact claim, on p. 47 of Markets and Minorities, is that in 1936, "only three black Ph.D.s were employed by all the white universities in the United States, whereas 300 black chemists alone were employed in private industry." Sowell, meanwhile, engages in apples to orange comparisons. He doesn't tell us how many Black PhDs were employed in private industry; it's impossible for those 300 chemists he notes to have all been PhDs, considering that from 1826 to 1936, Black Americans earned 153 Ph.D. degrees (Johnson, 1969). Nor does he tell us the overall ratio in 1936 of the academic employment of PhDs to the industrial employment of chemists. If private industry employed 100 times more chemists of all races than white academia did PhDs of all races, there's nothing important in Sowell's statistic. Moreover, Sowell assumes a parallel between specifically "white universities" and all "private industry" that is very demeaning to blacks -- to wit, that all private industry must be as white as a white university. In reality, certain chemistry-requiring industries probably were *dominated* by blacks, such as those catering to race-obscuring beauty regimes (hair straighteners, skin lighteners, etc.)

Certainly there are economic incentives to hire the best regardless of race, but there also has been a seemingly-irrational -- but actually based on "taste" -- discrimination. See Gary Becker's 1957 thesis for an early discussion of this, but also his critics.

Cycle Cyril said...

The numbers I used were derived from Sowell's latest book, Economic Facts and Fallacies (page not immediately available - I'm at work). I can only imagine that Sowell refined his numbers.

PG said...

P. 123 of Economics Facts and Fallacies is even vaguer than the earlier book; it states, "For example, hundreds of black chemists were employed in private industry before World War II, when not a single major university had a black professor of chemistry-- or anything else. Columbia University went more than 150 years before it had its first Jewish full professor."

A black chemist could be employed with basic training in chemistry; a professor would not be employed without a PhD, and as I've noted, there were fewer than 200 PhDs granted to African Americans in the entire era before WWII. Moreover, the African American William A. Hinton was an instructor at Harvard Medical School in 1918, and became a professor there in 1923. Fr. Patrick Francis Healy, son of a mulatto slave woman and the plantation owner, became president at Georgetown in 1874.

I'm not clear on what Sowell considers a "Jewish full professor," such that he believes there wasn't one at Columbia until 150 years after its 1754 founding (i.e. not until 1904). In 1885, Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman was appointed to the Faculty of Political Science; in 1891, Richard J.H. Gottheil was appointed professor of Semitic Languages, with a Chair endowed by Temple Emanu-El, where Gottheil's father was rabbi. Columbia probably was more open to Jewish students prior to WWI, at which point the admissions director and others began looking for ways to limit the number of Jewish students (who supposedly had become 40% of the university's undergrad student body).

Certainly there was religious prejudice against Jews at Columbia as well as other universities. James Joseph Sylvester, a great British mathematician, couldn't even apply for a job at Oxbridge because he wasn't a Christian, but was more informally discriminated against at the Ivy League in the 1840s, and was mistreated in his brief stint teaching at UVa. Though the antebellum southern gentlemen were fairly disrespectful of all faculty; just before Sylvester's tenure, the WASPy Professor John Davis was shot to death in an attempt to quiet a disturbance on the Lawn.

Takeaway point: I don't know where Sowell got his information on black and Jewish participation in academia, but it seems to have been seriously distorted.