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December 16, 2002

Is Opposition to Affirmative Action Racist

Tapped feels I stepped over the line when I argued that:

[In] a society that even questions whether to leave a majority leader of the Senate in office, despite repeated statements supporting segregation and praising Jefferson Davis's crusade for slavery, it's clear that we are nowhere near enacting the comprehensive economic and anti-discrimination policies that would make affirmative action unneeded.

So for the meantime, opposition to affirmative action means you support the status quo of racism. Period.

While I don't disagree with Tapped who want to argue that there are principled conservatives who oppose affirmative action for non-racist reasons, intent is not everything. If one recognizes the systematic racism of American society, yet fails to provide an alternative to affirmative action, such a failure to act is racism in my view. And if you fail to recognize the existence of remaining pervasive racism, that is racist in its own way.

Tapped compares my stance to conservatives who argue that opposition to the war in Iraq "objectively" makes one a supporter of Hussein. To the extent that the antiwar left fails to seriously engage with promoting a real alternative policy that seeks justice for the Kurds and others terrorized by Hussein's regime, I have sympathy for the conservatives' argument. I am deadset against the war in Iraq but I have written strongly about the moral vacuum in an antiwar movement that has sometimes allowed thugs like the Workers World Party to hold too much sway. To the extent that the antiwar movement absents itself from promoting alternatives, as the WWP/ANSWER approach does, the conservatives are not wrong in their critique. Luckily, there are antiwar movements like United for Peace and Win Without War and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy that are seeking real alternative policies to war that also address the demands of justice.

Returning to the issue of affirmative action itself, I think Tapped makes a fatal error in describing it as "redress for past racism." That buys into a description of reality that says, sure everyone is colorblind today, but we need to make up for the past injustice of Jim Crow. But as the report I cited a few days ago makes clear, racism is alive and well in employment decisions every day. A black person with the same qualifications receives fewer job interview requests and fewer job offers than a white counterpart. Affirmative action is not taking jobs from whites but giving blacks equal opportunity.

It is a conservative trope to pit the idea of affirmative action against equal opportunity, but in a racist society, the first is (in the absence of more significant social intervention) necessary to the second.

In education, the issue of affirmative action is a bit different. We are talking about admissions based not really on who is already the best qualified -- since education is where one seeks to get qualifications -- but over potential. A lot of folks are outraged that a black person with lower SATs might be admitted over a white person with higher SAT scores. But the point of SATs is to measure potential and are only relevant when comparing people who faced similar challenges growing up. Many conservatives are quite comfortable advocating economic affirmative action-- ie. giving preference to poorer students who may not score as well as those trained in Andover-style prep schools. And economic challenges no doubt effect SAT scores.

But why is there so much resistance to believing that prejudice and bigotry are independent harms to children aside from the economic inequality intertwined with racism in our society? I'm not the biggest fan of "self-esteem" rhetoric but it's clear that hate and bias do effect the ability to learn and the confidence to score well on standardized tests. So a decent score by a black kid may very well reflect more potential for achievement than a slightly better score by a white kid who did not face the same traumas of prejudice.

Again, that is not redress for past harm but an attempt to use imperfect testing systems to imperfectly estimate the future potential of children. The raw numbers of standardized scores gives too many people a self-satisfied "scientific" sense that an injustice has been done when those raw numbers are adjusted for "soft" reasons like estimates of the effect of racism. But I frankly trust the "soft" adjustments more than the original "scientific" scores -- and I'll say, along with the law degree that Tapped noted, I have a physics degree and social science training to give me an informed choice of which discipline has more relevance.

That all said-- and as I wrote in the original piece-- there is little doubt that affirmative action is imperfect. Any conservative who proposes real and dramatic alternatives to affirmative action, as opposed to mere opposition in support of the status quo, can escape an accusation of racism.

I would far prefer dramatic alternatives to affirmative action, such as mandatory jail time for employers caught engaging in violations of 1964 Civil Rights Act, full funding for every K-12 school to the level of Andover, and the end of zoning rules that encourage racial and economic segregation. Those might be good starts.

But as I said, we live in a society where those proposals are not on the table, but rather where there is a serious question over whether a politician can praise not only Strom Thurmond but Jefferson Davis and still think of remaining in a top leadership position.

So to slightly rephrase my original proposition, unless someone is proposing to deal with racism in any way comparable to affirmative action, they are objectively racist if they merely oppose it.

Not to be extreme about it, but fifty years ago, many "decent" people said that lynchings were bad, but the anti-lynching proposals of Northerners were an imperfect solution whose harm to states rights were worse than the gains from its policies. Those "decent" people were racists then, and their anti-affirmative action successors are racists now.

Posted by Nathan at December 16, 2002 04:06 PM

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the problem is that many affirmative action programs are actually harmful to their intended beneficiaries. Racial preferences in college admissions systematically mismatch students with schools, causing higher drop out rates among other things.

This is a problem that has been known about for decades, but is completely ignored by supporters of AA. I suppose I could call you a racist for supporting a program that I believe is harmful to minorities, but I'm guessing that my accusation wouldn't convince you that you hated black people.

Posted by: Ross at December 16, 2002 10:22 PM


Your examples are literally "black and white." Where do other ethnic groups fit in? It really does matter, because there has been great injustice against Asian immigrants in this country, and there is still racial prejudice against them in places, but God knows no one is thinking of giving *them* preference in university admissions.

Well, why not? What the Chinese suffered in late-19th-c. China wasn't slavery, but it was definitely comparable to Jim Crow. Read Mark Twain's writings on the question from his years in San Francisco and you'll see what I mean. It was horrifying and humiliating and ubiquitous, and it was designed, just as Jim Crow was designed, to drum it into the victims that they were less than human.

But what happens to Chinese-Americans under affirmative action? Well, if they're lucky they get lumped in with whites as "people that don't need any help"; if they're unlucky they're discriminated against even wrt whites, as they were until a few years ago at San Francisco's Lowell HS (an "elite" public high school -- the SF equivalent of Bronx Science or Stuyvesant). Chinese-American students had to outscore white students just to make the admissions cutoff. (NB this is no longer true, as of [I think] two or three years ago.)

Look, there are two possible things that advocates of affirmative action might want, and they're completely incompatible with one another. One is a boost for groups that have historically been wronged by America -- which would emphatically include Asian-Americans, whose numbers would then go up. The other is a sort of proportional representation of American ethnicities in American universities &c., which would mean very obviously that there are too *many* Asian-Americans, and we need to shed half or more of them.

Which is it? Do we try to mirror the nation in the universities, or do we try to compensate groups the country has wronged? Or do we say that our debt to the Asian-Americans is "paid" because they seem to be getting along very well without help?

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 16, 2002 11:44 PM

First Ross-- the trope that affirmative action is harmful to minorities themselves is ridiculous and patronizing, since it argues that both civil rights advocates themselves are stupid and the parents and children who take advantage of the programs are stupid.

Conservatives who normally argue that individuals can manage their personal choices and options optimally (so get the government out of the way) suddenly become social workers in the case of affirmative action-- arguing that they need to save the poor benighted minorites from the rigors of higher education that they are too stupid to realize they are not ready for. Give me a break. Yes, some who get advantage of affirmative action drop out, most of those ending up in alternative programs where they would have ended up without AA, but most others prosper and succeed. So few lose from the program and most gain overwhelmingly.

But it's a nice rhetorical game to attack AA by declaring the beneficiaries too stupid to manage their increased options. It's such a high-minded form of bigotry.

Michelle- yes, the situation of asian americans is complicated given the horrendous history of racism against them in America, partly because this is matched by an asian migration to the United States that a generation ago was dominated by highly educated Asian professionals. And asians have benefitted significantly from affirmative action in hiring and employment.

I wrote about this issue during the whole battle for affirmative action in the University of California system in the mid-1990s. See here. The key section notes:


One of the most divisive elements of anti-AA strategy was to pit an Asian "model minority" against blacks and latinos in a zero-sum scamble for the ever shrinking resources of University education. But Asian community leaders, from Mabel Teng of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to campus Asian Pacific Islanders representatives, spoke strongly for affirmative action at the Regent's meeting. Jeff Chang, a student leader from UCLA, noted in an article that 60% of UCLA Asian American students had avowed support for affirmative action.

The conservative Regents sought to pit the image of struggling Asian immigrants who pull themselves up by their bootstraps against the image of african-americans from Beverly Hills benefitting from preferences. But as many Asian leaders noted at the Regents meeting, Asian Americans have benefitted from affirmative action in hiring and contracting and that the "glass ceiling" of racism is real for all people of color regardless of income.

Immigration policy and affirmative action also highlight the complexity of simple class analysis based only on incomes--the measure the Regents focused their new policy upon. Even when they immigrated to the US with few funds, the 1965-1975 wave of Asian immigrants to the US consisted largely of highly educated professionals. To this day, Asian immigrants average a higher level of educational attainment than native-born citizens, giving their children an educational boost regardless of income. In the image of the "boot-strap" Asian immigrant is the assumption that a person's class position in their home country disappears when the immigrate to the US, but educational patterns show that class position from abroad is being replicated in the US. Thea Lee of Dollars & Sense has written of the way that many Asian Americans have been able to bypass discrimination by banks through the tradition of informal financial lending pools by families and aquaintenances available to new immigrants. This is a key point highighted by new reports in the weeks following the Regents' vote showing continual discrimination in lending by banks to African Americans and Latinos.

I would note in passing that the Thea Lee cited back then is now the chief economic analysis for the AFL-CIO on international economic issues.

You might check out the complications of affirmation action and asians in this article from the Asian American Times Online. There is an intersting fact sheet on "Myths of Asians as a model minority" here.

This all highlights the multifaceted problems of racism, from access to jobs, cultural capital, financial capital and so on. Does AA as applied occasionally effect asian students negatively? Probably (although such are usally corrected over time as you note), but the whole array of language outreach and other related programs that groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action highlight also benefit asian-americans significantly.

But your comments on the purpose of affirmative action-- either historical redress or absolute proportional representation -- ignore what I said. Affirmative action is about attempting equal opportunity TODAY given the complicated imperfect reality we face. It is complicated in university admissions comparing the potential of a black child of a factory worker to the white child of a lawyer compared to the asian child of a hotel busboy who was also a university teacher back in China.

Now, you can ignore the personal, financial and cultural effects of those family backgrounds on each child and pretend their high school achievements happened in a vacuum, but that is not "equality" in any meaningful sense. The potential of each student does not exist in some scientific-seeming "score" based on grades or SATs; those are merely a guide that are meaningful only in that larger personal context.

Now, a better solution is to expand good K-12 and higher education for all students, so education is no longer a rationed resource. With open admissions, some students will fail no doubt, but none would be barred from trying.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 17, 2002 07:08 AM

You're right to focus on AA as a response to current, not past discrimination. in my mind this largely settles the Asian-American question, since there's not much continuity btw the ferocious anti-Asian racism of the 19th century and the prejudices of today.

more broadly I would argue that racism in the US basically *is* black and white. Clearest example would be residential segregation, where there is *no* comparison btw the experience of African Americans and any other group...

Posted by: JW Mason at December 17, 2002 11:45 AM


my point doesn't depend on civil rights advocates or parents and students being stupid. Numerous studies have documented what I brought up in my first reply. Your casual dismissal and assertion that things turn out okay regardless is hardly convincing.

Posted by: Ross at December 17, 2002 06:37 PM

Ross- "numerous studies" mean little. One study and a link would be an interesting start of a conversation. There are large numbers of studies and books arguing for the effectiveness of affirmative action-- which convince most civil rights leaders and the beneficiaries of affirmative action to support the program.

So unless they are too stupid to evaluate the studies in question, my point stands. Most high-minded conservative critiques of affirmative action depend on the assumed inability of its beneficiaries to know what's good for them.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 17, 2002 06:45 PM

Fair enough. I'll post some links to some studies in the next day or so when I have time to track them down on the web.

If you have links to studies that show that AA is beneficial, I'd sure be interested in that. After all, maybe I'm wrong!

However, your point about what civil rights advocates think is irrelevant. You're making an argument via authority. If I pointed out that gun rights advocates believe that studies show that more guns mean less crime, I'm guessing that you wouldn't find it terribly convincing. Better for us to look at the studies themselves and decide on our own rather than appeal to authority.

Posted by: Ross at December 17, 2002 09:38 PM

Again and again I have made the argument that the problem with American education is not so much higher ed. as it is k-12. The United States has arguably the best system of higher education in the world, from Ivy League Universities to community colleges. But at the k-2 levels the differences between schools are stunning.

My opinions were definitely formed by my own American education. When I arrived in the United States at age 14, I atended an inner city high school in a large midwestern city. My first textbook was six years old and covered in graffiti. My sophomore English teacher gave us photocopies of Shakespeare's plays because there weren't enough textbooks. Classes were geared towards lowest-common-denominator teaching. Science equipment was minimal and improvised. We did have some basic extracurricular activities, like band, and counted ourselves lucky. Many kids worked part-time; some even full time. I remember only one field trip, to the local museum, and some of the kids didn't even have enough money for lunch. (BTW, I'm told by people still in the neighborhood that we should call our high school years "the golden age", because it's worse now!).

So are you telling me these kids are expected to compete equally with kids whose schools are equipped with the newest textbooks and equipment, whose parents can afford tutors and class trips to New York City or even Europe?

It's not that it cannot be done; it can, and has, by some very determined people. But the differences between the schools means that the best education a brilliant working-class kid can get is often the equivalent to the one a mediocre upper-middle-class kid gets in his suburban high school.

If you really want color-blind college admissions, maybe you should consider class-blind education.

Posted by: Emma at December 17, 2002 10:56 PM

For Ross: http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/research/

Yeah, it's the research supporting Michigan, but having read it, I can say it's pretty hard core. Also, go to your local library and lick up a copy of "The Shape of the River" by Bowen and Bok.

Posted by: Mark at December 18, 2002 08:58 AM

there is another problem with the argument that affirmative action does not work because students are somehow mismatched. There was a study in MIT that showed the troubles that fell on women graduate students and women professors. From what I can remember a lot of the problems were due to mistreatment and outright sexism. If there is a study to show that sexism exists once a person gets in, why is it so unreasonable that racism does not exist within the school of higher learning?

Furthermore, not every white person that gets into the Ivy league graduates magna cum laude, summa cum laude , or "thank you" laude. Some of them even drop out. Does that mean that these white people were mismatched at their schools and universities need to rethink their policy of admitting white people? Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I have heard these types of arguments since i have entered college and they are so dismaying because , frankly, they are conceived with no sense of reality. To hear people tell it, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism was wiped away and no one has racist thoughts. That's odd since it has always been against the law to kill and people are still doing it. Another thing is there are people who like to pay lip service by saying racism still exists, but when someone gives an example, they all say that it's not racist and so on.

Frankly, as an African-American, the most insulting thing is that a lot of people who oppose things that have helped us, say that they oppose them because they actually haven't helped us and they want to make sure that the solution is somehow "just right." It is very paternalistic and I personally view it as racist because it sounds like people are saying that Black people are too stupid to know their own mind. That's the type of attitude reserved for children.

Posted by: mike at December 19, 2002 11:57 PM

Perhaps before we tar anyone who disagrees with you as a racist with a couple of ready-for-lighting crosses stuffed in the garage, you should be more clear about what exactly you define as AA. I suspect your definition would put about 70-80% of the U.S. population in the racist category. In terms of different definitions you have:

1) the contingent, court-ordered redress for proven discrimination (per the Adarand decision)
2) Increase outreatch and recruitment efforts to insure that a high portion of minorities are made aware of and given access to apply for opportunities (e.g. recruiting at predominantly African-American universities, for example)
3) Giving some level of bump to boost a minority candidate's chances of being able to meet acceptance standards - either a minor bump or, in the case of Univ. of Michigan, a pretty hefty one
4) Using race-specific hiring or acceptance quotas to force alignment of a workforce with demographic percentages in the general area or reserving specific positions only for "minority candidates"

The first couple you'd get a lot of support upon.. if item 4 forms the basis of your standards, you are going to lose a majority of Americans. And if your approach is to call them all racist as part of an effort to persuade them of the merit of your cause, you are part of the reason that the 'crats are a minority party.

Posted by: Jeff at December 20, 2002 12:46 AM


While you're clearly trying to bait someone into a flame-war, a couple of comments about your definitions of affirmative action. In #3 your oversimplification of the process of affirmative action in higher education is part of the reason we have to keep having this debate. As for #4, quotas are illegal, and have been since Bakke. So, can you give that quotas business a rest!

First, get your facts right, then come back to the table.

I'm also wondering about your phrase "minority party" in relation to the "'crats". Are you saying that the democracts are in the minority, or that they are the party of minorities? Just curious.

Posted by: Mark at December 20, 2002 07:43 AM

So your float around #3 somewhere.. but you did review the UofM policy, of course. Minority status got you 20 points. Perfect SAT - 12 points. Outstanding Essay - 3 points. Really hard curriculum - up to 8 points, etc. A solid GPA gets you up to 80. The admission limit sits at around 100 (of 150 max). The system was designed to maintain enrollment percentages equivalent to the prior quota system. The Supreme Court gets to decide whether that 20 points is "one of many factors" or a veiled "get in free" pass. I think that it is more the latter. However, they also give out points for "legacy" admits which I also think is a load of bunk.

On your second comment, I had meant a party in the minority (at the Federal level at least - you guys OWN the Massachusetts statehouse)

Posted by: Jeff at December 20, 2002 05:10 PM

I am a staunch liberal, but I oppose racially based affirmative action because I feel that it is ultimately harmful to minorities. Rather than serving as a remedy for racism, it is likely that racial affirmative action actually helps perpetuate it. Think about it: if you are white and you apply for a job and do not get it, and someone who is black or Hispanic and less qualified gets it instead, isn't it possible that that could cause you to feel some resentment? I consider myself an enlightened and exceptionally tolerant person, but when I filled out my college applications, I could not help but feel like it was unfair that I would be at somewhat of a disadvantage because I could not check a box that said that I belonged to a minority race or ethnic origin. Of course, I am at an advantage because I come from a family that is financially comfortable and have had a quality high school education and the opportunity to fill my resume with tons of interesting activities and summer programs, many of which are financially prohibitive to many people. But there are blacks and Hispanics who have also had such opportunities, and there are many white students who have not. Black and Hispanic students in our neighborhood have a bit of an advantage over white students in their high school in getting into college, even though they are of comparable financial status and have had the same quality education and opportunities as my brother and other white kids around here who go to public school. I am not complaining, but I know that in a school with intense competition to get into college, some white kids become resentful that the minority students they are competing with have a leg-up. My brother, who is in 9th grade, seems to think that blacks have it "so easy" because of the advantage that affirmative action gives them. Of course, that is not a typical situation, but I mention it to illustrate how racially based affirmative action can cause resentment and hence perpetuate stereotypes. The danger exists that affirmative action, particularly mandatory quotas, will lead to the impression that minorities are either less competant or less hard-working than whites, and therefore they need special treatment. At the very least, it gives ammunition to racists who feel that way and want to persuade others. Anti-immigrant sentiment has always been there, in part because American workers fear the competition for their jobs. I am afraid that if immigrants and their descendents not only compete with the locals for work but are given special consideration, it will create an intense anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant backlash, which could result in harsher immigration policies.

I know that as a Jew, I would hate being included in such a program. Not only am I sure that it would be a catalyste for anti-Semitism, but I know that a century ago, most Jews in the United States were poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, living in the tenaments in the Lower East Side and working in sweatshops. But hard work and public education enabled each generation of Jews to be more successful than the generation before, and now most Jews are on the upper scale of the income charts. Granted, being Jewish is easier to conceal than being black or Hispanic, so prejudice is not as automatic, but Jews have been able to succeed here without having to hide or downplay their religion, to the point where the majority of people in this country voted for a Jewish vice president two years ago. I know that if there had been affirmative action for us, it would have made it harder to gain acceptance, because it would have contributed to the stereotypes about Jews looking to get something for nothing.

I am appalled at the economic and de facto racial disparities that exist in the United States today. I am a firm believer in programs that will help even the playing field by providing increased opportunity for the less fortunate to work their way up. But I think that in the cause of racial equality and acceptance, affirmative action must be based on socioeconomic status and not on race. It is through equal opportunity and disregard to race, not special regard for it, that hopefully this country will come closer to reaching the dream that one day, we will be a society where all men (and women) are created and treated equal.

Posted by: Laura at December 20, 2002 05:48 PM

Apologies to all for taking so long to reply, but here are a couple of studies, unfortunately, not online, that support my point:

Clyde W. Summers, "Preferential Admissions: An Unreal Solution to a Real Problem," University of Toledo Law Review, Spring/Summer 1970, p. 382.

"College Dropouts and Standardized Tests," by Lenore Ostrowsky, Academic Questions, Spring 1999.

I have more, if anyone is interested. There are, of course, studies that claim that there is no serious mismatching going on. But rather than quote those studies, proponents of AA seem to prefer to disparage the motives of those they disagree with. I'm sure it makes you feel so wonderful inside to release your righteous indignation onto the benighted, but it doesn't convince anyone.

Posted by: Ross at January 2, 2003 08:40 PM

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