issue of affirmative action-which the Supreme Court is preparing
to adjudicate over the next few months-is surrounded in a mist of
misunderstanding. What follows, therefore, is a brief primer to
help clarify some of the fundamental issues at stake.
What is affirmative action? Originally affirmative action
meant efforts to recruit more minority applicants so that there
would be true equal opportunity, and the best person would get the
position. Today, however, affirmative action means race and gender
preferences. Race-based affirmative action involves giving preference
to less qualified black and Hispanic applicants over more qualified
white and Asian American candidates.
But don't such preferences fight discrimination? No. Consider
two virtually identical scenarios. A white person and a black person
apply for a job. The black person is better qualified; the white
person gets the position. That's racial discrimination. Here is
the second scenario. A white person and a black person apply for
a job. The white person is better qualified; the black person gets
the position. That's affirmative action. Now, in what sense is the
second result a remedy for the first? It is not. All that we see
are two instances of racial discrimination.
Isn't it a problem when minorities are under-represented at selective
colleges? That depends on what is causing the under-representation.
In the National Basketball League, more than 75 percent of players
are African American, even though African Americans are only 12
percent of the national population. Is this a problem? Why aren't
people demanding to see more Jews or Korean-Americans on the court?
The reason is that it is merit-not discrimination-that is producing
the disparate outcome. So, too, if a larger percentage of whites
and Asian Americans are getting into Berkeley on merit, that is
a result we should be willing to live with.
Does affirmative action hurt blacks? Yes, in two ways. African
Americans face two serious problems in America today. The first
is "rumors of inferiority." Many people don't like nonwhite
immigrants, but hardly anyone considers these people inferior. With
blacks, however, there remains a lingering racist suspicion that
they may be intellectually inferior. Far from dispelling this suspicion,
affirmative action strengthens it. It conveys the message to society
that blacks aren't able to succeed on their merits. Racial preferences
devalue black achievement and intensify doubts about black capacity.
What is the second way in which racial preferences harm blacks?
A second major problem facing blacks is cultural breakdown: high
crime rates, weak academic skills, low rates of entrepreneurial
formation, broken families, and so on. These cultural problems are
the main reason why blacks do relatively poorly on many measures
of academic achievement and economic performance. The way to improve
black performance is to address the cultural breakdown. Racial preferences
are a distraction from this challenge. They create the illusion
that blacks are performing poorly due to racism. By rigging the
race is favor of blacks, affirmative action policies discourage
blacks, and society in general, from doing the hard and necessary
work of building the group's cultural skills so that blacks can
compete effectively with whites and other groups.
So what should the Supreme Court do about affirmative action?
Get rid of it.